The China Chronicles, chapter 3 (2010)

— Back to Chapter 2

ESL students meet Dickens’ Christmas, yearn for travel
Jan. 2, 2010
[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — The fall term is coming to a close here. I gave my exams this week, and will spend the next two weeks reading and marking them, so I can return home to see my offspring with a clear conscience.

Before exams, I decided to give my students — and me — a break, and show them a movie. Of course, it had to have some educational value.

Believe it or not, Christmas, at least among our students, is a big thing here in China. They learn about the holiday as part of their English lessons in middle school, but still have only a hazy idea of what it is all about. Chinese textbook authors condense Christmas traditions from the USA, Europe and the UK into a mishmosh of ideas that serve only to confuse, not inform.

Students ask me about how we celebrate Christmas in the USA, and I give them a pretty generic description, based on my own memories of 50-odd previous Christmases. But descriptions, particularly for ESL students, do not really convey the spirit of the holiday. So, I chose A Christmas Carol as the movie I would show all my classes.

Though I did not tell my students, reading or watching A Christmas Carol is one of my own personal Christmas traditions. Frankly, I am a sap for this story. No matter how many times I read the novella or see a movie version, I never tire of it.

There are a bazillion versions of Dickens’ classic, but the one I screened was the TNT TV movie from 1999, starring Patrick Stewart. Of all the versions I have seen, this one is my second favorite, after the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim. I have not seen the Jim Carrey version recently shown in the US theaters, but I suspect it has no chance of dislodging the ones I have just mentioned from the top of my list.

One of my students told me he had seen as a middle school student a cartoon version produced in China. Instead of the three Spirits and Marley’s ghost, a Father Christmas figure appears in Scrooge’s home to show him the meaning of Christmas. Lame. Anyway, John (his English name is John Connor) told me he much preferred the version I showed.

Although the story is set in London of the 1840s, Dickens’ story captures the spirit of Christmas better than any textbook explanation, without being overtly religious. Since it also omits Christmas trees and Santa Claus, I could also use to show how Christmas traditions have changed in the 166 years since Dickens published it.

One concern I had, which was corroborated by some students’ remarks afterward, was how much of the movie the students could actually understand. The longer dialogues are pretty hard to follow for a non-native speaker, but I hoped that the visual aspects would help in their comprehension.

It turned out I was right. They got the gist of the story, and perhaps most of them got a better idea of why Christmas is such a Big Thing in the West.

One of my freshman composition students, Gloria Zhu, wrote these comments in her diary. She definitely got it.

… In fact, [Scrooge] was influenced by the people who were kind, open-hearted, optimistic and hardworking around him.

From this film, I was deeply moved by the true meaning of love. Love is not a kind of occupation. Love means giving. Give love, for in giving it you will find the power in life along with joy, happiness, patience and understanding. Anger and depression can be countered by love and hope.

I will note that she wrote this entry before we discussed the movie the week after I showed it.

After a week of screening A Christmas Carol — as much as I love it — I was ready to get back to work. I had two weeks remaining to wrap things up, so would have enough time to read my written exams before I leave for visit to the USA.

My oral English students, as part of their final examinations, had to meet with me two at a time for a 15-minute conversation. Although I told them they did not have to prepare for our sessions, they of course did. Chinese students hate surprises. Years of fairly traditional (aka rigid) schooling have given them no experience in impromptu speaking. To alleviate some of their panic, I gave them some idea of what I might ask them. Since one of the units we had covered this fall was about visiting places, I told them one possible topic of conversation would be the place they would most like to visit.

Now, my students know I am originally from the New York metro area. They also know I lived in South Africa for a year, and that my daughter has lived in France. Guess which places my students said they would most like to visit.

Not only that, many of them used the same phrases, like “New York is a shopping heaven,” which tells me they either compared notes or spent hours memorizing the textbook. Whatever. Mostly, I wanted to engage them, if only briefly, in a short conversation to gauge their vocabulary, comprehension, pronunciation and fluency. It’s easy to pull the over-prepared student out of his or her “comfort zone” by changing the subject.

[I did throw some students a curve ball, by asking them to describe their favorite movie or TV show, topics that are in the textbook but in later chapters. I am happy to say most handled it pretty well. For the most part, their spoken English skills are pretty good, but they have little confidence in them.]

I discovered in our conversations that they all want to travel. No, they yearn to travel. They ache to travel. TV, movies and the Internet have brought the wider world to even the smallest village of Hunan. But many of these college students have never been anywhere outside their own village before coming to Jishou — an admittedly podunk city — to attend university. Think about that fact for a while. It explains a lot of the acute homesickness and naivete the freshmen have during their first term.

Yet, many of these village kids want to see the ocean, Beijing, Shanghai, Tibet, Australia, the UK, the USA, Singapore, Korea, Japan, even Taiwan. They have seen the photos and videos, talked to people who have gone there, but circumstances (money for most of them, and necessary visas for all of them) largely make it almost impossible to them to travel very far from home.

Two students asked me if I could bring any students with me when I visit the USA later this month. I said I really wanted to, but getting the necessary paperwork requires a lot of time and money. I can come and go from China as my budget and time permit. Most Chinese can’t.

Sigh. Field trips in the USA are a hell of a lot simpler.

If I had a magic wand (or a portkey, or some flue powder), I would love to whisk all 330 of our college’s students (plus the faculty, of course) away to see the USA firsthand. Unfortunately, it would take magic, or a very generous educational foundation grant, to bring my students anywhere abroad. The costs of traveling are too high for their families to fund. But my fertile imagination is toying with the idea of organizing a summer trip to Beijing for them. A fair number have never been to their nation’s capital city, while I have been there twice already. It hardly seems fair. I don’t know whether I can pull it off, or how many could actually go, but bringing some of my students into part of the wider world would be the best education I could give them.

Journey to the West*
Jan. 11, 2010
JISHOU, HUNAN — Well, really, I’m heading east to the West — the USA, specifically — in two days. My feelings are, strangely, mixed.

On the one hand, I will be able to see my kids and my relatives again, after 17 months’ separation. On the other, I’ll be apart from my friends here in Jishou, who themselves will scatter to the four winds after exams end on the 20th.

Then, there’s the prospect of flying, which I used to enjoy and now regard as a necessary evil to get from one place to another. (Would someone please invent transfer booths**? Soon?)

My itinerary is as follows. Leave Jishou’s Xiangxi Minzu Hotel at 9:30 am Wednesday by motorcoach to Changsha. Stay overnight in Changsha. Leave the next morning by air to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, then transfer by shuttle bus to Pudong Airport for an afternoon flight to Chicago. From there, I’ll go to Indiana or Kentucky, depending on which child picks me up.

I’ll be in the USA for just three weeks. It seems a bit short, after 17 months’ absence, but my travel plans after I return to China dictated a curtailed US visit. My Ukrainian neighbors (two piano teachers plus their son) invited me to join them on a trip to Hainan, China’s version of Hawai’i, during the last week of February. The Chinese New Year is Feb. 13-14 this year, and the days before and after strain China’s transportation network, as people travel home to celebrate with their families.

Imagine Thanksgiving/Christmas travel peaks in the USA, but with significantly more people moving around. Get the picture?

My travel agent advised me that flying back close to Spring Festival would jack up the ticket price by 1000 RMB or more. The cheapest return date he could find was Feb. 8, so we settled on that date. That gives me 10 days to chill out in Changsha and Jishou with my friends before I can thaw out in Hainan.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. My immediate relations now live in three states, so I can spend roughly a week in each location, about the maximum I feel is appropriate. (My uncle Herb, who frequently violated his own maxim, once said that guests are like fish; they begin to stink after three days.) As an ex-pat, I am now in a curious state of “homelessness.” I have no domicile in the USA of my own to return to. Instead, my physical address is “care of” someone else, and I am a guest of whomever I stay with. Yes, my dear children/family/friends, I know you love me, but let’s be frank. Sooner or later, I would need to move on.

I expect my days in the US will be pretty busy. Besides visiting folks and satiating myself on pizza, pasta, decent bread and drinkable beer, I need to sort through the junk I left behind, pack some books to send to myself in China, shop for gifts for my Chinese peeps, take photos and write diaries for my QQ space, and catch up on American TV shows.

At this point, I have one foot in the USA and one in China. Having lived in Jishou for 17 months straight, I’ve become fond of this grubby little city in the middle of nowhere. I have made faculty and “townie” friends, so when my students inevitably graduate I won’t feel so bereft of companionship. There are now several restaurants I like to frequent, and I have sort of figured out where to go to buy things cheaply. In short, Jishou has become my new home, and for a variety of reasons I have decided to stay here longer.

Cases in point. I will probably spend Spring Festival week with two dear friends, a piano teacher from Changsha, and another a student whose grandparents live near the university. Other friends have also invited me to visit Xiangtan (near Changsha), and Fenghuang, Zhangjiajie and other places around Jishou. My Ukrainian friends, Anya, Grisha and Nik, will also be in Changsha after they return from Fujian. So the 10 days between the USA junket and the Hainan trip will be far from boring.

Hainan was once a sleepy little island in the South China Sea. Then someone realized its tropical climate was a lot like Hawai’i’s or Phuket’s, and developed it as a vacation getaway. Now Chinese (and Russians, too, as Grisha tells me) have adopted it as their cold-weather retreat. We will stay in an apartment near the beach, at reasonably affordable rates — cheaper than hotel rates by far — for seven days. Expect lots of photos from me, assuming I can conveniently hook into the Internet there. (I’m debating whether to bring my laptop, or just use a nearby netbar. Laptop’s probably going to be easier.)

As they say, details to follow.
* Journey to the West is a tale well-known to Chinese; in it, four characters travel from China to India to recover sacred Buddhist texts. I have seen at least five different TV versions of it since arriving here.
** Larry Niven proposed transfer booths as part of his “Known Space” universe. For a pittance, one can enter a booth, punch in a destination and immediately appear in a booth far from your original destination. In Niven’s imagination, the first booths shared the same latitude; the next generation were able to correct for different angular momenta so transfer booth users would not be slammed into a wall on arrival.

Zhangjiajie tourist board capitalizes on Avatar’s popularity
Jan. 26, 2010
LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — James Cameron admits he based the mountains in his new blockbuster, Avalon, on the landscapes seen in many places in China. The tourism authority in Zhangjiajie 张家界 has made the connection explicit — it has just renamed a peak “Hallelujah Mountain” after a key locale in the movie.

The karst spire was once known as “South Pillar of the Heaven” (南天一柱), or “Pillar between Heaven and Earth” (乾坤柱).South Pillar of Heaven It lies within the National Forest Park, a world heritage site visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists — mostly Chinese, Korean and Japanese so far — each year.

And yes, when I saw the movie I said to myself, “Damn. It looks like Zhangjiajie!” You can see my photos on Picasaweb to see what I mean.

So, Avatar fans here’s the lowdown on the National Forest Park in Zhangjiajie. The quickest way to get there is by air from Beijing — one-way airfares are about 900 RMB (about $130) but sometimes you can get cheaper fares. Entry to the park itself is 248 RMB ($36) for a two-day pass. You will need both days, because the park is both big and worth a leisurely visit. Bring water to drink and food to snack on, but DO NOT carry it in a white plastic grocery bag. The local monkeys will literally try to steal the food from the bags. Use a backpack instead. The monkeys aren’t good with zippers … yet.

You can find accommodations just outside the park for very reasonable prices. There are lower priced hotels in the city, but you have to factor in the hour-long bus or taxi ride between downtown and the park. Being just outside the gate is much more convenient.

Meanwhile, some theaters in China have pulled the 2D version of Avatar to make way for Confucius, starring Chow Yun Fat, prompting allegations that the state media authority is railroading the foreign-made movie out of theaters in favor of the domestic variety. Officials, however, say the 2D version is drawing less at the box office than the 3D flick, which justifies the switch.

Sounds like protectionism to me.

Happy Year of the Tiger!
Feb. 16, 2010

New Year's fireworks as seen from my friends' roof

New Year’s fireworks as seen from my friends’ roof

One of my better shots

One of my better shots

Another good one

Another good one

I’ll write something more substantive later on.

Guest blogger: Wu Chengjun (Smile)
Feb. 16, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — While folks in the West were celebrating Valentine’s Day, the big day here was the beginning of the New Year, and the Spring Festival. I arrived in Jishou on the 12th, so I could spend New Year’s Eve and Day with one of my friend’s family.

Spring Festival is rich in traditions. One of my freshmen, Wu Chengjun (Smile), is from the countryside of Huayuan County west of Jishou.

Smile Wu Chengjun

Smile Wu Chengjun

On her own, she has been blogging in English in her QQ space about the Festival. They were so interesting and honest, that I asked her if I could share them with my friends in the States. She said I could.

I’ve made corrections to Smile’s punctuation and some of her grammar, but everything else is her work. I hope you enjoy reading her diary entries.

11/2 — the Year of the Ox
The day after tomorrow is the Spring Festival. My folks bought many things today, such as meat, vegetables, fruit, hot food, new clothes, and sweet wine, which you can drink with a kind of bread made of rice. The fruits are not only apples and pears, but … I don’t know its name in English. It looks just like “1.” It tastes sweet. In Chinese it is: zha gan. Though when we talk about fruits, we may remember bananas, we don’t buy it during Spring Festival,I don’t know the reason. Maybe it’s dear. Maybe the children dont like the softness (because every parents think first from their children — I just personally think that). Of course, you can find many red pictures with a good word on them, such as fu (福). The picture means good luck ^_^!

Every festival, parents want their children to wear beautiful clothes and eat delicious food. Though children know little, they are particular about what they wear. When their parents buy them new clothes, and let them put them on, they always jump with joy, with a big smile on their faces. Yes, children are easily content and easily happy! Yes, children love candy. You may let them be quiet, and not cry. Playing is a charming thing for them. They can play the whole day without any rest. I think curiosity makes them like this. They don’t know the real world and what life looks like. They are eager to learn it, so they play with their partners, make a fantastic life which consists of all the things they allow for.

12/2 — the Year of the Ox
I got up early. My mum will buy the pig’s tail and pig’s head. The head and the tail will be special for the Chinese god. My dad will use fire to clean off the hair of the pig. Every festival, there is someone who deals with pigs and makes money, because of the customs. The world has such jobs, but it’s very strange there aren’t many people who do these things, but the village calls for them. For this reason, my dad does it by himself. My dad uses the gas and a tool, which is the mouth of fire. Others look at this, and ask my dad whether he can do it for them or not. Of course he can do it, it’s hard to refuse. No one wants to do it, it’s hard to do and a waste of the gas I think. (I am always so mean to everything :-)) My dad gets some smoking, just as the present for the festival. The festival of Christmas is an important festival to the foreigner, but it is the fact that the most important Chinese festival is the Spring Festival. Every one knows it’s a festival, not just the head of the year. We look on it as the beginning of the year. Everything will be clean. New clothes will be ready for the children. All the clean clothes are also for the adults. We call for a neat house and clean body. We have baths, and feel comfortable. All the fresh vegetables from the field are washed. You know, the dust is ugly, so we wust clean them. My mum is busy cleaning from the morning to evening. She washes the pork, vegetables,and clothes. My grandma is busy,too. She makes a kind of kucie (cake), which is made of rice and a small plant, (we know it,but I don’t know how to say it in English, poor english!)We use a special tool to let them be fried well.

13/2 — the Year of the Ox
About six o’clock, my grandma called me loudly. I woke up without hesitation. I must get up to go with her. I am afraid she would dare to go by herself. She needs a partner, and only I can follow her, because I am the youngest in their eyes i think. We arrive at the place, which is the tu di miao. She put all the presents to the god, such as meat, which are boiled pig’s head and tail. There are oranges and bread, (not the bread we eat in the school, it’s soft, but the former is hard.) Of course, we leave the special paper and incense stick. The paper is square, it’s name is thje money paper, which all the dead people use it in another world. Maybe they give the money to the surrounding gods, not the only one. My grandma lights the paper, and I follow her to stand the stick. There have many small points with the ashes of the fire. Oh dear, the wine slipped my mind. We bring it to have a toast,to let the gods celebrate the festival. It’s very good, most of the old folks in my hometown can drink wine. We make sure all the things are laid on the gate of the gods. We set fire to more of the money. The old would tell something to the gods when they light the paper. The things are varied from the happy to the sad. Yeah, you can tell all the things you want to. The private is ok, too. Everyone says a different thing,but the aim is the same: we want the god to bless them, or their family. Wishes are allowed for the health, safety and making much money! God, please bless us! Let all the kind people live a comfortable life after their hard work. The Spring Festival has come, let’s enjoy it, and I wish for all the people “everything goes well! And let’s do some little things to make the love go around the world! My friends, classmates and teachers, Happy Tiger Year again!

14/2 — the Year of the Tiger
This is the first day of the Spring Festival. In other words, it is the first day of the second month.(Oh,my god, the right month has slipped my mind! Poor memory.) This morning, we choose to eat noodles, and fried bread which is made of rice and peas. I have told you in another diary why we change to another food as our breakfast. In the folks’ eyes, we can avoid the fly in summer. The rice in summer will catch the attention of the fly. It’s very strange why the fly pays no attention to the noodles and the other food. We needn’t worry whether it’s wrong or right, it’s the custom. We show the honour to the dead people, too. We won’t clean the house. We ignore the rubbish in our home, because people think if you clean house, all the things including all your luck will be lost in the following days in the new year. Likewise, we’d better not clean our hair. If you wash your hair, I am not sure whether you would lost much of your hair. We follow many such customs,but don’t know why. This is the place of mystery. We don’t know it clearly, but we show great interest in them.

15/2 — the Year of the Tiger
We think this day is right for visiting relatives. If you get along with your relatives, you may chose the morning to start out, and the afternoon to go back. You want to talk much with them, you value the time to get together. But, you may just have lunch or dinner if you are busy, because of the many family members you should visit. The most important I must tell is the big dinner and the following things. The dinner like the one we last one we ate in in the previous year and the first one of the new year. The host is very happy. You should remember to treat him as your friend. He’ll drink with you the wine he thinks tastes good, talk about the changes in the recent year and other interesting things. After the supper, each family gives “lucky money” (hongbao) to the children. They are very happy with much money to spend on toys and candy. It’s very much like a switching money game I think, but we all enjoy it, especially the children and the old. They get the money without any endeavour, so they are pleased during the festival and love it. Why must we visit others in Spring Festival? I think we enjoy the atmosphere, there are many people there. (We describe it as “Re Nao” in Chinese.) It’s what the New Year is. Generally, you can get the lucky money in three ways. The first one is from your parents, they give it to you when you have the first big dinner. The second is your grandparents. They love you very much, too. The third is the relatives in your hometown. If they value the friendship of your parents and earn much money, they may give. Yeah, they are country folks. Do you remember l have told you the first way? All the things in Chinese are known as “Bai Nian”.

My Winter Holiday, part 1
March 4, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s been a while since I posted anything here, since I’ve been basically living out of a suitcase for the last five weeks. Now it’s time to relate the story of my journeys.

There were three stages: USA for family reunioning, Changsha/Jishou for Chinese New Year, and Sanya for sunny (actually partly cloudy) beaches.

Universities in China typically knock off for at least four weeks for the Winter Holiday, I suspect to encompass the times when Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) falls in the Western calendar. Traditional holidays follow the lunar calendar, while civil holidays and university skeds follow the Western calendar. I still get confused which calendar to use when people refer to their birthdays.

I was looking forward to my holiday for a variety of reasons. The main one was getting back to the US after 17 months’ absence to see my kids and relations. The other was to enjoy a week in a tropical climate during the winter for the first time in my life. (Yeah, I lived a deprived life.) It may surprise you to learn that I wasn’t all that excited about being in the USA. Since I’m essentially rootless, coming back was more like visiting a foreign country, but one where people spoke English.

Here’s a not-so-original observation. Life in a place where everyone speaks your language is a lot easier than in a place where they mostly don’t speak English and you mostly don’t speak theirs. I didn’t need to think hard about what to say to shop people, or taxi drivers. That aspect of the trip was relaxing, but I still found myself looking at the US as a visitor, not as a native.

[Cue the age-old line about “you can never go home again.”]

Getting to the USA required four legs: a 4.5 hour coach ride to Changsha, where I stayed overnight, a 3-hour flight from Changsha to Shanghai-Hongqiao Airport, a 45-minute shuttle bus ride to Shanghai-Pudong Airport, and finally a 13-hour non-stop to O’Hare Airport. My Shanghai connections were pretty close, just a few hours’ wait, so my outbound trip was not so bad.

United flight 836 disgorged me at O’Hare in the late afternoon local time. Surprisingly I didn’t feel too jetlagged. My son and his girlfriend picked me up and took me to their alma mater, Purdue, where I chilled for the Martin Luther King Jr holiday. He has a single room in his fraternity house (Phi Kappa Theta, if you must know), which was pretty comfortable considering the circumstances. (I mean, a frat house is kinda noisy and busy late at night. But on the bright side, there’s always lots of beer.)

Purdue’s dining halls are palatial compared to the ones at Jishou U. And the food is pretty good. On the other hand, when we went out to Panda Express for “Chinese” food, I realized that what I normally get at the Jishou U dining hall is far better than what Panda Express serves its customers.

Fortunately, 7 Irish Brothers redeemed West Lafayette’s restaurants. It serves a terrific shepherd’s pie with brown bread. And my son and his GF made some really fine pizza, which we ate while we watched Pi in her apartment. I had never seen Pi before. Now I wish I hadn’t. It was actually pretty disturbing.

My weekend at Purdue also marked the start of my shopping for gifts to take back to China. We visited Von’s, a second-hand bookstore that also sells what-nots. A couple of students had requested books from the USA, since foreign books are hideously expensive in China. So I took care of those requests pretty easily. Von’s also has Native American crafts, which I considered buying, but didn’t for largely stupid reasons. I didn’t find similar crafts at such a good price for the rest of my American sojourn.

Here was my gift-shopping challenge: to give people on either side of the Pacific Ocean gifts that they could not normally get in their local shops. The Americans got crafts and other things made in Jishou or western Hunan (Xiangxi) — a bottle of jiugui, for example. The Chinese-bound gifts presented a greater challenge. Nearly every gift-y type thing in the USA (that I can afford!) is made in China, or Taiwan (which mainlanders call “Taiwan province”). Books are a great intercontinental gift, but are heavy and bulky. So I only bought a few books and concentrated on picking up small and light objects. Quite a challenge, believe me.

On MLK Jr Monday, my junior stepson picked me to take me back to his house in Louisville, where I stayed the rest of January. Since he had to work practically every day I was there, I was pretty much housebound, except for outings with him and my other stepson, and my birthday dinner at a Mexican place in Elizabethtown (otherwise known as E-town).

With a lot of time on my hands, I got to read three books, studied Chinese, chatted with my Chinese friends on QQ, shopped online, and created a web page on Jishou’s local website. This last activity had an interesting result — no one could believe a foreigner was on the site. Apparently, I was the first ever. Some people thought it was a hoax. Others suggested I was there to capture a Chinese girl as a girlfriend or wife (not too farfetched actually), or that I was Mr Moneybags (that part is farfetched, my friend Xiao Pan’s accusations notwithstanding). Then people who know me better came to my defense. Since the dust has settled, I’ve made a few new friends in town, who are quite excited to find a native English speaker to hang out with.

I bought a few more books at Half Price Books, and I took some photos of the store for a bookstore manager in Jishou. [Note: Half Price Books off Westport Road allowed me to take photos. Barnes & Noble in Cedar Rapids did not. Use this information as you wish.]

By this time, more two weeks had passed and 20+ years of conditioning kicked in. My finely honed schoolteacher instincts said school would resume in a few days, but my cerebral cortex said, no, reptile brain, you’ve still three weeks to go. I also started to miss my Chinese friends and especially Hunan food. I’ve become so accustomed to la jiao 辣椒 (hot pepper) that food without it tastes too bland. Or maybe the chilis have burned off some of my taste buds.

But I got over my unease. After all, I could have pizza, American junk food and cold cereal (a real letdown there, except for Cheez-Its), and beer that isn’t bland and watery. (Yay for Samuel Adams!) For my 54th birthday we went to a Mexican restaurant in E-town, where I had la jiao again, a huge mug of Dos Equis and (while I wore a huge sombrero) a birthday shot of tequila, the Mexican equivalent of baijiu.

While in Louisville, I saw two movies at Tinseltown, Avatar (pretty good, but pretty overrated, too) and The Spy Next Door,a simply horrible Jackie Chan (Cheng Long 成龙) vehicle. Seriously, even if you love Jackie Chan, skip this one. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but it’s not remotely funny. It co-stars Billy Ray Cyrus, which should have tipped us off to its overall suckiness. I could go on with more details, but I need some mental floss now to forget I ever saw it.

Next stop was Cedar Rapids, where my daughter now lives. I opted to fly there, since renting a car is almost as expensive as flying and since I had not driven a car for a year and a half. She had almost a week off work and her BF had a few days off, too, so we could hang out for a while together. We went shopping and bowling, played Dance Dance Revolution on the Wii, played with Billy the (killer) cat, and ate some great food, some even made by ourselves.

I nearly finished my shopping for China-bound gifts. I added two bottles of Jack D and Makers Mark to my baggage, among many smaller items that (I hope) were not made in China. Since I was trying to manage with one carry-on and one checked bag, packing was pretty tricky. Not only did I have the books and other gifts, and my traveling clothes, but I was also toting stuff back I had left behind way back in August 2008.

So I had to prioritize. Non-urgent items went into USPS flat-rate boxes (about $43 to China for a medium box) and the rest into my perilously overpacked bags. (The Li-Ning backpack is fine, but the supermarket rolling suitcase is now toast. Its pull handle didn’t survive United’s baggage handling, and the locking zippers did not survive TSA inspection — I forgot TSA regs and locked the bag in Changsha.)

Since the weather across the US was dodgy, I booked an early morning flight to O’Hare in case of weather delays. I didn’t want to miss my international flight which left at 10 am. Of course, there were no snow delays; I could have taken a later flight and my daughter and I could have gotten more sleep. (And the IROC-Z might have started, saving us both costly early morning taxi rides.) So, I, Mr Worry Wart, had the dubious luxury of spending four hours half awake in the terminal. But that was nothing compared to my later ordeals in Shanghai and Changsha, which I will relate in the next post.

My Winter Holiday, part deux
March 8, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, here I was back in China, after three weeks in the USA, and it seemed like I was stranded in Shanghai. (Or shanghaied.)

When I left China, I was pretty sure my flight to Changsha was just a few hours after my arrival in Pudong Airport. No shuttle bus trips, no worries. But I had no idea what flight I would take, since my foreign affairs officer had worked out the details.

So, as soon as I disembarked from United 835, I connected to China Mobile and sent him a message: “When is my flight?” His reply: “Bad news, it’s been canceled” Turns out I had to go to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport after all to catch a different flight. No biggie, I thought, Another 30 RMB bus fare with plenty of time to catch the domestic flight.

Puh-lenty of time.

Due to stormy weather around Changsha, my flight was delayed not one, not two, but five freaking hours! My 9 pm flight from Hongqiao Airport eventually left at 3 am!

At one point, I fell completely asleep across four chairs, only to wake scared shitless I had missed my flight. I hadn’t. There were still two hours to go.

I had booked a hotel in Changsha and told my friend F. to expect me around dinnertime. Instead, I sent her a message to say I had no idea when I would arrive. She (bless her heart) paid the hotel in advance so I would have definitely have place to sleep once I arrived.

Which I did, finally. At 5 am in the effing morning. I arrived at the hotel at the same time as a couple who may or may not have known each other previous to that night, if you catch my meaning. (They had no luggage.)

Soon I had that nice bed I had wanted to sleep on for the past 38 hours. I managed I wake up in time for lunch and shopping at Carrefour, then went to dinner that evening. With only a day left to my already short Changsha sojourn, I really didn’t want to waste time by sleeping too much.

Here was my plan. Arrive in Changsha Feb. 9, hang out with friends, go shopping, etc., then leave Feb. 12 to return to Jishou to spend New Year’s Eve with a friend’s family. Instead, I arrived in Changsha early the morning of Feb. 10, so I had only a day and half there.

Anyways, on the 11th, I had lunch with the family I was going to Sanya with. We ate at Houcaller (豪客来 Hao Ke Lai), a chain steakhouse, which is near my hotel. A few hours later, I ate there again with F. and her sister (they really wanted to go), but this time I had the chicken.

The next morning, I took the motorcoach to Jishou, to finally arrive at what I now consider my home.

As I have mentioned before, Jishou is not particularly beautiful or noteworthy. Situated midway between two tourist attractions — Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang — it’s more of a whistlestop for travelers than a destination. For a small city, it’s traffic is horrible, especially downtown, and for Westerners there is a paucity of edible Western food. For a college town, the nightlife is pretty limited to karaoke clubs and a few night clubs (which few college students frequent anyway).

So, when I tell people I like it here, they don’t believe me. If I moved to a larger city, I could make much more money teaching, have more access to Western goods and other native English speakers, have more things to do in my free time, and (as I realized this holiday) have an easier time getting to places outside China.

But, having lived in small cities and huge cities, I can tell you that folks in small cities are for the most part friendlier and more open, especially if you are a Westerner in China. I feel very welcome and appreciated here, since I am not one of the dime-a-dozen Americans strolling the streets of Beijing (for example). I am usually welcomed as an honored guest. I admit that, after 18 months, the adulation has kind of gone to my head. Besides, I’ve made many good friends here. My students are wonderful (though not all are excellent academically). I get paid on time, and my working hours are fewer than I have ever had in my life, even with my tutoring gigs on the side.

So, what’s not to love?

When I arrived at my apartment, I entered a pig sty. When I left the month before, I was pressed for time and did not leave my apartment in the best shape. Yes, I did power off everything but the fridge and shut off the LP tank, but the floor was filthy, the kitchen was a mess, and I discovered with some dismay that I had left a meat dish to fester in the fridge. A person is supposed to have a clean house for the New Year. Mine was nowhere close.

And the fridge stank.

So, I didn’t really have time to relax. I unpacked, washed clothes, cleaned house as best I could, and got some basic food items (But not fresh baked bread. The bakers at Jun Hua Supermarket had the holiday week off.) My hostess, N., was going to meet me around 12 pm on the 13th (New Year’s Eve), and take me to her family’s home near JiDa. Her dad, a businessman, lives there with his second wife, their young daughter and his parents.

[China has a growing number of blended and single-parent families, as the stigma against divorce is waning. Divorced women, however, have a hard time finding new husbands, since there is a cultural double-standard. Chinese men prefer previously unmarried women as brides.]

The lunar New Year’s Eve in China is a big, big family thing. We set off firecrackers before sitting down for a big dinner. (The firecracker’s noise scares away the Nian 年, which might otherwise steal food, livestock and children to eat.) We watched the annual New Year’s gala on CCTV, the national TV network. They taught me to play xiangqi 象棋, or Chinese chess. Three of us played against N.’s grandpa, who beat us handily three times. After we watched the city’s fireworks display at midnight, we had another meal before calling it a night at 2 am. (Some families stay up until dawn, but it’s not a universal custom.)

In the days following, I puttered around the house, visited with Jishou friends, and basically just chilled out. The last part of my holiday was approaching: a week in sunny Sanya, China’s Hawai’i.

Half a watchdog is better than none
March 14, 2010

[Cross-posted from The Daily Kos.

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Today while I was watching a girl with the English name Jackie teach some vocabulary this morning, I could tell she would be a successful person in the future. The thought just popped into my head unbidden, so I hope it’s a good sign. I don’t know Jackie all that well. She’s a freshman. Since I see my students only two hours a week, that means I have had only about 24 hours of contact time with Jackie and most of her classmates. Furthermore, since I teach her class composition and not spoken English, we rarely even talk to each other in class.

Still, I can get a general idea of Jackie’s character and personality. She works hard, but is not especially gifted at English. She smiles a lot, is friendly, and pays attention in class. I reckon she cares a lot about people. Today, she came to class prepared with three vocabulary words to teach class (a weekly assignment for everyone): dusk, eminent and scenic. And she taught the lesson exactly as I had requested, which not many of her peers have been able to do so far.

Further, she was poised and confident, despite her shaky pronunciation and lack of sufficient eye contact (she avoided looking at my side of the room!). Not a perfect presentation, but acceptable under the circumstances.

In my mind’s eye, I could see her in a few years as successful businesswoman, directing some meeting or another somewhere in China. By that time, if she follows the customary “timetable” here, Jackie will be married and probably will have a child, too. Marriage may precede the business success. (Chinese don’t date much before getting married; one or two serious relationships is usually all it takes to get married by the customary 27 or 28 for women.)

Then, I hope that all will go well for Jackie. Her husband will treat her well, her child will be healthy and successful in school, her job won’t wear her down to a nub.

I have taught adolescents for the last 25 years, and I can’t help but get involved in some ways in their lives. We teachers share something only parents (and other relatives) can see — the development of youngsters into adults. But we see it from a different perspective. After all, we don’t have to live with these kids when the school day ends!

So, I have rejoiced with my American students when they get their drivers licenses, when they get college acceptances, when they graduate … and sympathize when they fail at life’s many challenges. I have fretted whether a girl has an eating disorder, or a kid has a substance abuse problem. There are times I have wished I could tell a parent flat out to leave their kid alone, to get a life and not try to micromanage their kids life. (Seriously, there are some families with totally useless parents and totally straight-ahead kids. And I taught middle- and upper-class kids in the States.)

My Chinese students are older and have different set of problems on their plates, but I am still concerned about their welfare and future. Their lives in college are more proscribed than in US schools. They have many more class hours, more rules to follow, and a whole set of parental expectations and obligations that most US children will never experience.

The idea of face is an ingrained Chinese custom. Chinese are supposed to be outwardly placid, even if they are depressed, angry or frustrated. To reveal too much of one’s inner turmoils is to lose face. So students are loathe to confess too much of their inner lives to even their friends, and certainly not to their teachers. Foreign teachers, however, are not part of the “face system,” so we sometimes find our students (freshmen, especially) will seek us out to talk things out.

Unlike schools in the US, Chinese unis rarely have counseling offices or student affairs offices. Such responsibilities are left to each individual college’s head teachers, whether they are suited to be mental health counselors. China’s overall mental-health system is antediluvian, where mental illnesses are ignored or diagnosed as temporary emotional problems, rather than treated. In such a climate, I try to keep an eye on my students and friends, to watch for signs of clinical depression, alcohol abuse (there’s no real minimum drinking age here — students can buy beer and liquor (baijiu) in the school store), and suicide.

[I should interject at this point that I have no psych training, and I have to confess as a high school teacher, I was completely unaware of the perils some of my kids were putting themselves in. So I kinda suck as a watchdog, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.]

So, I know that some students are overwhelmed at the pressures they face. As I have mentioned before, many have never left their hometowns, have never been away from their families, and in some ways feel like castaways on some remote (but crowded) island. So freshman have to deal with (for me) an unfathomable loneliness. Then, many are expected to excel in college, sometimes in majors their parents have selected for them, no matter what the emotional and psychological price.

China’s only retirement system is its children. Parents can retire at 50, if they can, and they expect their children to support them until death. Thus, college grads not only have to worry about their own immediate successes — find a job, find a spouse, produce offspring — but also worry about the kind of lives they will provide their parents. These worries seem to begin when they are college freshmen. Each examination (and there are many) is yet another obstacle to surmount on the way to making their parents’ lives comfortable and happy.

Perhaps you can see, then, why a Chinese student’s life is so much different from an American student’s. In the USA, college students can worry (or not) about their own immediate futures. They have the freedom to blow off school, and become beach bums, for example. In China, there is no such luxury. Students have to worry about their own and their entire families’ futures, so the psychological and emotional pressures are exponentially greater.

There are fortunately only isolated cases of teenagers committing suicide. The most common cause is low marks. But heartbreaks can be another. One girl in another campus here was so distraught about losing her boyfriend that, after she calmly told her roommates she was going to the roof to get some air, threw herself off the top of their seven-story dorm. A friend of mine found a girl in their dorm’s bathroom bleeding to death after slitting her wrists. Her BF had dumped her.

By way of explanation, parents generally forbid dating or any kind of boy-girl contact when their kids are in middle and high school. Some even forbid their kids to date in university. Why? It might pull them away from their studies. In addition, many middle and high school students are segregated in the classroom, boys and girls on opposite sides of the room. One of my sophomores (she is 20) remarked that the first time she ever worked with a boy on a class project was just last fall. With so little experience with the opposite sex, some kids just don’t know how to handle their first rejection or break-up. (Students have also asked me to advise the lovelorn, which in my case is a bit like the blind leading the blind toward a precipice.)

On the contrary, my freshman Jackie seems to be pretty together as a person. Intelligent, personable, hardworking, she has a bright future, and maybe she doesn’t need me to concern myself with that future. But, I know growing up is hard to do, so I can’t help myself. After 25 years in the classroom, it’s become an ingrained habit.

My Winter Holiday, part the third
March 16, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — OK, so I guess I need to finish the story of my Winter Holiday, with an account of my trip to Hainan, China’s Hawai’i.

My companions for this trip were my neighbors, Grisha, Anya and their son, Nik, 9. Grisha and Anya are Ukrainian piano teachers here on a three-year exchange. I’ve been teaching Nik English twice a week. In December they asked me to join them on a week-long trip to Sanya 三亚, on the southern tip of Hainan.

Hainan is roughly the same latitude as Hawai’i, with a very similar climate. Formerly a neglected part of China (criminals were once banished there), mainlanders realized it was prime vacation spot about 20 years ago, just because of its location. Now it’s the site of scores of hotels and resorts, including swanky places like Sheraton, Hilton and Ritz-Carlton properties.

And Russians. Lots of Russians. Some have settled there, like our tour agency owner, Tatiana , while most just come to bask in the sunshine and swim in the still-clean ocean. There are so many Russian tourists that menus are bilingual, and many shops boast bilingual signs.

Of course, there also many, many Chinese, even at the ultra-swanky places. (We could use the Sheraton’s beach, but not the facilities — officially — so I can speak authoritatively on this last point.)

By way of a preface, I’ll recount my travel adventures before we met to leave for Sanya. One of my friends in the senior class had asked me to visit her in Xiangtan, south of Changsha, during Spring Festival. So, since I had to go to Changsha to meet Grisha, Anya and Nik anyway, she invited me to spend the night in her home instead of the hotel I had already booked.

Naturally, I had no idea how to get to Denise’s home, although I had stayed there last April for a weekend. So, she offered to meet in at my motorcoach’s terminus and then guide me home.

But something happened, and she couldn’t meet me. No problem, she asked a friend who gave us directions on how to get from Changsha to Xiangtan.

Outdated directions, as it turned out. I was supposed to go to the train station (easy, I could walk there, but I took a taxi instead), then go to the bus station next to the train station and find the Xiangtan bus. Despite my careful investigation, all I found was the Changsha city-bus station, not the intercity south bus station.

Denise suggested I ask someone who spoke English for assistance. At the time I was standing next to a teenage girl and her parents, so I figured she was likely to know some English. They talked to Denise on the phone, hailed a cab, and told the driver to take me to the south bus station, a few kilometers away.

Not really next door to the train station.

Oh, well. Once at the right station, I bought a ticket for Xiangtan, got on board the bus, and waited for our departure. And waited. And waited.

After an hour, we finally pulled out of the station around 5, but not before the driver and conductor asked several passengers to get off the bus. These walked out of the station, past the terminal office, and onto the street. Once the driver submitted his paperwork to the terminal office, we then stopped to pick up these same passengers and then waited by the curb another 30 minutes for more to arrive.

[I think the plan here is for the driver to save transport taxes or fees for his company, by shedding some passengers, and passengers to (supposedly) save money. But I paid 13 RMB for my ticket and they paid 14, so I still remain puzzled. I went through a similar scenario when we returned to Jishou from Changsha in another week.]

Once we were finally moving, the trip took only an hour, and after a comical 15 minutes trying to find each other in a crowded bus station, Denise and I left for her home, where her parents had dinner waiting. I had a very pleasant stay, and had a chance to enjoy nice weather the following day.

Our flight to Sanya was scheduled (remember that word) to leave at 9 pm, so I was not rushed leaving Xiangtan. Denise and I left for Changsha later that afternoon, and we met Grisha’s family close to their hotel. Denise went home right away, declining my offers of both her taxi fare and bus fare, and the rest of us had a light supper before we left for the airport.

A friend offered to take us in his car to the airport. It was a sedan, and had plenty of room for all of us and our luggage, but he was concerned it was not comfortable enough. So we stopped by his office (the traffic police station, where he is an officer) to find a larger car. He couldn’t get one, was profusely apologetic, but eventually accepted our answers of “mei wen ti” — “it doesn’t matter” — and we were on our way again.

To wait – you guessed it — for another ridiculously delayed flight. It was a rerun of my experience in Shanghai Hongqiao airport. Ours was the last flight out of Changsha at 3 am. We arrived around 4:30 am, took a cab to our hotel, and rousted our gracious interpreter, Oksana, out of her bed to help us talk to the hotel operator, who we also rousted out of bed.

(Oksana — her Russian name — is a young Chinese woman from Harbin, in the northeast. She came to Sanya because she has a very marketable skill — she can speak Russian. Perhaps the tropical climate encouraged her, too.)

We slept the rest of the morning, then Oksana showed us around. Then we hit the beach.

Now, I’m used to the summer crowds at Jones Beach and Robert Moses park on Long Island, so it was blessed surprise to find the beach at Dadonghai was not jam packed with people, even for a holiday. The sand and the water were both clean (no trash), and the surf during the first half of the week was really calm — a joy to swim in.

It was cloudy during most of the week, which moderated the temperatures to the mid-20s (that’s the mid- to upper-70s in America-speak) and cut down on the UV radiation. So we didn’t turn into cooked lobsters until Friday. (I am still peeling. Jeez.) It rained only once midweek.

Besides Dadonghai, we also visited the Sheraton beach at Yalongwan to the east. Tatiana advised us that we could use the beach there for free, but not the Sheraton pools or beach chairs. We did anyway, and only once did a Sheraton employee chase us off the chairs. Since the Yalongwan beach was also not crowded, we were not really stealing any chairs from Sheraton guests. The swimming pools were also pretty empty.

The downside of coming after Spring Festival, when it is cold in most of the rest of China and when most Chinese are still hanging with their homies and not touring, are the higher prices. The Ritz-Carlton’s top priced suite was 2500 RMB, or about $367 a night, and the Sheraton’s topped out at 1700 RMB, or about $250 a night. By comparison, our hotel, with no scenic views or fancy accoutrements, was a bargain at 1960 RMB for 6 nights (about $48 a night). We are teachers, after all, not wealthy Russian businessmen.

The beach at Dadonghai was a few minutes’ walk away and Yalongwan was an hour’s ride on a city bus. While there were some pricey restaurants, we also found a cheap little dumpling shop, and of course there were plenty of supermarkets and convenience stores all around. So we could eat cheaply if we wanted to.

Our other excursion was to the hot springs at Sanya Pearl River Nantian Resort, about a half hour from Sanya city. We spent most of the day there, and by the end of it were all very, very relaxed. The entry fee there was about 140 RMB, roughly $20.

For various reasons, I left Sanya before my friends did, and for once my flight was not delayed. I arrived in Changsha on time, spent some time with a friend there, and waited for Grisha, Anya and Nik to arrive so we could return to Jishou together.

My plan was to catch my usual coach at 1 pm , but they assured me their friend had made all the arrangements for our return. I met them near the west bus station, and we piled into a car, which took us … to an entrance ramp on the ChangChang Expressway. Yes, we became one of those hapless passengers who meet the bus on its way to its destination! Their friend assured us that tickets normally would be 100 RMB (true), but because of the holiday they were now 140 RMB. By meeting the bus on the highway, we would save 40 RMB each.

After hearing this yarn, I knew he was probably scamming us, but it was too late to complain. My coach fare to Changsha immediately before and after New Year’s Day was the usual 90-100 RMB. I doubted it would jump to 140 two weeks later. Still, the whole arrangement was not really so awful. We paid 100 each, and although we had to wait on the roadside for an hour, we still met the 1 pm bus and still arrived in Jishou at the usual time. (Though I suspect their friend managed to make some money on the deal somehow.)

So, that’s the end of my Winter Holiday odyssey. Three weeks in the USA, visiting 3 states, one week in Jishou and Changsha, and another week in sunny Sanya. I will not reveal how much money I spent. Suffice it to say I need to stay close to home for a few months to replenish my bank account.

The Goo-Goo-Googly mess
March 24, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Google and China have had a bit of a falling-out, as you may have heard. Google has relocated its China-based search services to autonomous Hong Kong and the mainland has responded by apparently blocking access to — the US-based site.

All I know is, I cannot browse to now to check my email. On one hand, it’s not a big deal; I can still use IMAP access and Mozilla Thunderbird to handle my email. On the other hand, I’ve now lost easy access to all the contact lists I had created for my classes. To get to them, I will either have to use the Tor proxy network to climb over the Great Firewall of China, or replicate the lists using Thunderbird or another unblocked webmail account.

Here’s a recap of the Google mess, if you haven’t been following it closely.

China requires foreign companies to abide by national laws, so Google had to agree to filter its search engine and search results to eliminate, among other things, risqué photos, porn and politically sensitive sites. Google took some heat stateside for its acquiescence to the restrictions, but Google’s leadership said it was a business decision.

In China, Google’s reps were also trying to persuade China’s net nannies to ease the restrictions, and to unblock some of Google’s other services, including Youtube, Blogspot, Blogger and Picasaweb. They had no success.

A few weeks ago, Google in the USA reported that someone overseas had made a concerted effort to crack Google’s mail servers, apparently to obtain the email accounts (and other information) of several Chinese dissidents. Google then reported it had traced the intrusions to a few locations within mainland China.

China predictably denied any such wrong-doing. Talks between Google and the Chinese government ensued, but in the end neither side backed down.

Then this week, Google announced it was shutting down its mainland-based website, and that all requests to would automatically be redirected to — the Hong Kong-based website. Although Hong Kong is now part of China once again, as an autonomous region, it enjoys some freedoms that the mainland does not; one such freedom is a relatively freely accessible Internet.

So, I can use Google-Hong Kong to search for things (though the Great Firewall may block the actual sites themselves), but I cannot access Gmail, which is located in the USA.

Thunderbird, my email client, can still access Gmail, so I can still read and reply to my Gmail messages. The IMAP protocol is not as yet blocked by the GFW. Neither is Picasa’s upload service to Picasaweb. (I can upload my photos, but I can’t edit them once they’re online. Grr.)‘s proxy network enables China’s netizens to climb the GFW, but, at least for me, the connection speeds are excruciatingly slow. I need a lot of free time and patience to edit my photo albums at Picasaweb. Facebook, which is already not very zippy, sometimes loads like I am using a dial-up modem. (OK, I’m exaggerating, but I can still watch the page load from top to bottom.) And for security and privacy reasons, Tor blocks Flash, so I can access Youtube, but I can’t view any videos there. So I don’t even bother with Youtube anymore.

Lack of easy access to the entire Internet is a downside of living in China. The Obama administration has been lobbying China to loosen its grip on the intertubes, but Beijing turns a deaf ear. For the Chinese government, controlling the Internet is another way of controlling China’s huge population. Too much cyberfreedom might disrupt the “harmonious society.”

April 14, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — The earthquake this week in China was in the western part of the country, in Qinghai Province, so it was nowhere near here. We never felt a thing.

The quake hit near a town of 70,000, in Yushu county, near the Sichuan provincial line and 800 km from the site of the horrible Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, as you can see from this map, copyright the BBC.


Hunan, where I live, is just east of Sichuan. China’s provinces are big, like Canada’s, so the apparent proximity translates into thousands of kilometers. Even so, my friends here say they could feel the ground heave when the 7.8 magnitude quake hit Wenchuan in 2008.

Wednesday’s quake was 6.9 on the magnitude scale, bad enough, but not as powerful as the 2008 one. Deaths are estimated at 589 now, and about 10,000 more are injured. Yushu is a rural area, and most folks do not live in the ubiquitous concrete-block homes. Most injuries are from wooden structures collapsing. I have not heard yet whether children going to school that morning may have been inside their concrete schools.

Stay tuned. I’ll try to give more details later.

Thanks, but I’m fine
April 14, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — The earthquake this week in China was in the western part of the country, in Qinghai Province, so it was nowhere near here. We never felt a thing.

The quake hit near a town of 70,000, in Yushu county, near the Sichuan provincial line and 800 km from the site of the horrible Wenchuan earthquake in 2008, as you can see from this map, copyright the BBC.


Hunan, where I live, is just east of Sichuan. China’s provinces are big, like Canada’s, so the apparent proximity translates into thousands of kilometers. Even so, my friends here say they could feel the ground heave when the 7.8 magnitude quake hit Wenchuan in 2008.

Wednesday’s quake was 6.9 on the magnitude scale, bad enough, but not as powerful as the 2008 one. Deaths are estimated at 589 now, and about 10,000 more are injured. Yushu is a rural area, and most folks do not live in the ubiquitous concrete-block homes. Most injuries are from wooden structures collapsing. I have not heard yet whether children going to school that morning may have been inside their concrete schools.

Stay tuned. I’ll try to give more details later.

Qinghai earthquake update
April 15, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here is an update to the earthquake situation in western China.
The death toll has climbed to 617, including at least 56 school children who were at school when the early morning quake hit. Perhaps 9,000 people or more are injured, some seriously. About 85 percent of the buildings have been flattened.

Twenty miles from the epicenter, Jiegu township in Qinghai Province is in a remote, mountainous region, altitude 13,000 feet. With no shelter, most survivors had to sleep outside in below-freezing temperatures last night with little more than blankets for protection.

The nearest airport, in Xining, is 12 hours away on rugged, winding roads. Chinese troops are already on the way with heavy lifting equipment and supplies.

Most of the homes in Jiegu are built from mud and wood, but schools are typically made from concrete block. Media reports say that 70 percent of the schools have collapsed. Students were already in school, since many are boarders.

The big quake was preceded by a smaller one at 5:39 am, which woke up teachers and students at one school in time to escape before the big one destroyed their school.

There are 700 troops on the ground now. Another 5,000 are on the way. Additionally, about 500 monks from Sichuan have come with bottled water, instant noodles and dried food. The government is warning private citizens to stay away, because of the region’s high altitude and bitterly cold temperatures.

More coverage is at the China Daily website.

Coincidentally, the day before the quake, I had just read an article saying that the number of earthquakes this year is not unusual. What is unusual, and tragic, is that most of the quakes this year have hit heavily populated areas. About 70,000 people live in Yushu county, the site of the quake.

China is still suffering from the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, which killed thousands of people and injured about 100,000. Entire cities were leveled and are still being rebuilt. While the USA and other countries quickly responded with offers of aid at the time, some Chinese are upset that the USA seemed to respond more quickly and more generously to this year’s earthquake in Haiti. I am not sure if the Red Cross and other agencies are set up for donations yet, but you could all help smooth international relations if you could send a little money to benefit the people of Qinghai.

Teaching the little ones
April 18, 2010

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Anyone who teaches English as a Foreign Language in China sooner or later gets called on to give private lessons or classes, or to put it another way, to get sucked into the maelstrom of English-learning angst here.

Some of your students might be university students trying for high scores on their postgraduate exams (the Chinese equivalent of the GRE), which include a pretty tough section on English skills, or the two main qualification exams for foreign study, TOEFL and IELTS.

But, by far most of your potential students will be middle school students (and their parents) who want high scores on the college entrance examination, and primary school students whose upwardly mobile parents want them to get into a good middle school.

[In China, primary schools are like US elementary schools, and middle schools have two levels, lower and upper, corresponding roughly to US middle and high schools.]

Many of these same children will also be taking piano, violin, dance, art, kung fu and/or taiji lessons besides. If all this over-scheduling sounds familiar to you, perhaps you know some parents in the States with similar agendas for their kids. It’s a wonder the children have a chance to breathe.

Technically, taking side jobs is not exactly kosher under the terms of our contracts. Most employers look the other way as long as your sideline doesn’t impinge on your “day job” performance or make you too much money, which would attract the attention of China’s equivalent of the IRS and raise embarrassing questions. You cannot work for another school, since a teacher’s foreign expert license (the “blue book”) is held by a single employer. Schools also need licenses to employ foreign teachers.

But tutoring one-on-one or small groups is OK. Once people learn you are giving private lessons, word travels fast, and so it is that I now find myself teaching 26 kids ranging in age from 4 to 11.

My university teaching schedule is 16 class meetings (about 50 minutes each), evenly split between freshmen and sophomore oral and writing classes. I have no evening or weekend classes, so I had free time. Much less now, as you will soon see.

Downstairs are a Ukrainian couple, who teach piano at the university. Their son, Nik, joined them this year, accompanied by all the texts he needs to pass the third grade. Of course, English is one of his subjects. They asked me if I would work with Nik two evening hours a week — for pay, of course. Each class, we spend about a half hour chatting in English, and the other half hour working through his textbook. We’ll finish the text next month, well ahead of the time he has to go back to Ukraine to take his tests to enter the fourth grade.

In case you’re wondering, Nik is homeschooled. Chinese primary schools don’t offer the instruction he will need to pass his tests: Ukrainian, Russian, English, natural science, health, civics, handwriting (Cyrillic and Roman) and mathematics. His parents handle all that, as well as give him piano lessons. Big surprise on that last one.

PJF is a good friend of mine in town. We met during the fall of 2008 when she participated, and won, a postgraduate English speaking contest which I helped judge. A former primary school teacher, PJF returned to the university to earn a master’s degree and thereby teach older students. About 30 or so, she is married to a police officer and lives in the Public Security Bureau residential compound downtown.

PJF has two dreams: to teach Chinese in the USA and/or to found her own English-language school in Jishou. Hoping to plant a seed for the second dream, she asked me if I would teach some of her friends’ kids on the weekend. I agreed, so she spread the word among her police-officer friends.

On Saturday afternoons, I (with one or two student helpers) teach five six-year-olds. On Sunday morning, we have 12 eight- and nine-year-olds. Their parents want them to learn to speak English, which Chinese schools typically do not teach.

Aware that most of the older kids spend hours sitting at their desks, virtually immobile, I made a conscious decision to make the classes as fun as possible. The climate here permits us to meet outdoors in the PSB compound’s garden — a pavilion is nearby in case of rain — and the visibility of the classes has attracted new students. It’s a two-edged sword, though. I cannot deny I am teaching students on the side, but at the same time I’m teaching at the one institution (other than the tax bureau) that could potentially cause problems for me. One of my new students is the daughter of the vice-president of the PSB, and her lessons are, um, gratis, on the recommendation of PJF.

PJF and I have a mutual friend, TXY, who is also about 30 and divorced with a four-year-old girl. A classmate of PJF’s, TXY is a civil servant — an officer now — in the local cultural affairs office. Her dad is a noted artist and expert on Tujia arts and crafts. Incidentally, both PJF and TXY are Tujia, one of the minorities in this part of China. The Tujia have mostly assimilated into the larger Han culture.

Like her friend, TXY also has dreams, but her biggest is to live in the USA, so her daughter can attend school there. TXY’s English skills are not strong, but she wants her girl to learn English as early as possible. TXY recruited two of her friends’ children to join us. After my Sunday morning lessons, TXY’s friend picks me up at the PSB, we all have lunch somewhere, then retire to his home for a one-hour lesson using the New Concept English books for pre-K children.

As if this wasn’t enough, I have another friend, WH, a colleague of the Ukrainians, who recommended me to a few of her private piano students. First, I was going to meet just one, a seven-year-old girl, but then WH sent another my way, an 11-year-old boy. At this point, I asked her not to send me any more students, but the other parents didn’t get the news. Another 11-year-old girl, who studies piano with a different teacher, joined us. With the two older kids, addressing the needs of the younger girl is a real challenge, but we manage.

Then, the seven-year-old’s mom said she had a friend who also wanted tutoring for her daughter. I could not politely say no, so I agreed to meet her on Saturday mornings.

The one girl turned out to be three. (Somehow one of my own university students was involved in this tripling effect, but I am not clear how.) These girls are six and seven, and the youngest studied last fall in Singapore, which has a much better English program than China. So, she is a little more advanced than her friends. [Another girl, her pal, just joined the class today.]

In case you’ve lost count, I teach Nik two hours, and teach a total of 10 hours on weekends, for a grand total of 28 hours a week. But those additional 12 hours are on my schedule, and I can cancel them with prior notice. Parents also have to cancel on occasion for holidays and such, so it’s not as tedious as it may sound.

Along the way, I’ve concluded that teaching primary students is a lot of fun, but a lot harder by far than teaching university students. You primary/elementary school teachers all get a big pat on the back from me. No way I could handle 25 kids five days a week every year. The few I have is more than enough, and I have help from college students and parents!

I’m of two minds about all this English tutoring. I have a friend (and former student) who spent five years teaching English in Hangzhou, a substantially larger city. She shares some of my misgivings. On the one hand, we are providing a service for parents who want their kids to succeed in a surprisingly competitive society. (Forget all those concepts of Chinese all marching lockstep toward a common goal for the Motherland. People here can be as cut throat and driven as any Wall Street financier.) On the other hand, we are contributing to a few more hours of lost childhood each week for our young charges. In my friend’s case, those big-city parents would just find another foreign tutor. In mine, if I say no, there’s really no one else in town offering lessons. Would those parents then spare their children some more play time, or find another activity for them? I have no way of knowing.

So, the best I can do is try to make the lessons as fun as possible. For those of you in the ESL racket, I use a lot of activities from James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) method, word games, normal conversation, and if I can get a good book about it here, eventually Asher’s Total Physical Response Storytelling. In other words, I am trying to avoid book larnin’ — the traditional Chinese method of language instruction. My students (all of them!) get enough of that in their regular classes.

A few parents, who are used to traditional Chinese teaching methods, have asked me (through my friend PJF as interpreter) to teach their kids like their regular teachers would. I reply that I am an American teacher, and I use American methods, the implication being that if they don’t like it, they can find someone else.

All of them, however, somehow expect their little darlings will be chattering away in English like magpies after each lesson. They want instant results, in other words. I wish I could find that magic spell that could turn all my students into fluent English speakers, but that could only happen if they were totally immersed in English 24-7. I only teach them two hours a week. So whatever progress the children make will be necessarily gradual.

Which goes to show that children and their parents are pretty much the same everywhere. Children want to play all the time, and avoid lessons. Parents want teachers, while they are herding the little cats, to perform daily miracles in pedagogy.

Adventures in translation
April 18, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, do you know what Rocky Mountain oysters are? If not, Google it, and come back when you get the answer. We’ll wait.

{Jeopardy music plays in background ….}

OK, so now you know they are bull testicles, what the big guy loses on his way to becoming a steer. In the Mountain West, they are considered a delicacy, though I will confess I have never eaten them despite spending two years in Wyoming. And I don’t really care for oysters, either, which is almost sacrilegious considering where I was born.

Today I helped a friend, Ailsa, translate a Chinese menu into English for one of her friends, who wants to open a restaurant featuring local cuisine. We managed OK, until we came across a special dish, 汉寿老水鱼炖牛鞭 (HanShou laoshui shuiyu niubian), her friend had translated as “bullwhip with turtle stew.” Neither Ailsa nor I knew what to make of “bullwhip.” I guessed it might be the tail, as in oxtail soup, but I was a little off the mark. I had the right idea, but the wrong location.

Our electronic dictionaries were of no help. We resorted to the Internet (we baidu’d it, meaning Ailsa used, and the result embarrassed my young friend, who resorted to all kinds of oblique references, like “a part of a man’s body,” to explain what “niubian” means.

Bull penis.

So, imagine you are a Westerner confronted with this menu. Some folks can probably handle eating turtle (tastes just like chicken — really!), but I don’t think many would find “bull penis” especially appealing. “Bullwhip” is rather poetic, but an American would first imagine a long, tough piece of leather (which may be an accurate description of stewed bull penis, for all I know). I could not come up with a suitable replacement for “bull penis,” (all I could think of were words like “cock,” “dick,” “schlong,” and the like — not much of an improvement), and Ailsa’s friend needed this menu translated right away.

So we punted, and translated it as “HanShou County-style turtle and niubian stew.” Now, some poor wait staffer is stuck with the touchy job of describing what a “niubian” to the innocent Westerner.

(Of course, now that it’s too late, I have remembered the extended Austin Powers joke about the spaceship that looks just like a “hot dog,” “johnson,” and so on. “Bull johnson” could almost work as a menu item. Or better yet, “Rocky Mountain johnson” — it has a nice ring to it.)

Day of mourning for earthquake victims
April 21, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today was a day of mourning for the 2,039 victims of last Wednesday’s earthquake in the western province of Qinghai.

Flags were lowered to half mast, prayers were offered in local ceremonies nationwide, game websites suspended play, and the media broadcast news reports and benefit concerts throughout the day.

The 7.1-magnitude hit the rural county of Yushu in Qinghai just after dawn. Most residents were still at home, and students in boarding schools still in their dorms at the time. Most of the homes and buildings were leveled.

Because of Yushu’s remoteness — 12 hours’ drive from the nearest airport — it took rescuers more than a day to arrive. By that time, survivors had already endured two nights in sub-freezing weather on the Himalayan plateau.

About 175 people are still missing, and about 12,000 are injured.

Most of the residents there are ethnic Tibetans, who have an uneasy relationship with the Chinese government. Beijing has responded to the disaster as quickly as it did to the more extensive 2008 earthquake in Sichuan; both the president and vice-president have visited Qinghai in the last week.

Qinghai is the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and political leader-in-exile. He has appealed to Beijing to let him visit Qinghai, but so far his requests have been ignored.

April 26, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — “Drill, baby, drill” is not just a slogan for Sarah Palin’s energy policy. Unfortunately, it’s also an apt description for what I have to listen to morning, noon and night when I am home.

The university is running out of dormitory spaces, so last month the uni tore down an unused water treatment plant and started construction of a new dorm, right down the hill from my humble abode. The project has included drilling and jackhammering though the limestone for the foundations and underground whatnot. Constantly. It starts around 6:30 am and, except for meal breaks, continues all frakking day until about 11:30 at night.

It’s like having Con Edison outside your apartment almost 24-7. (Sorry, that’s a New York reference, but substitute your local utility company — “dig we must” — if it makes you happier.)

The jackhammers stopped about 10 days ago, thank the stars. Now we just have to listen to two of these impact drills banging away all day.

I’ve been watching the construction as it progresses. Considering rate at which they are working, I am guessing that the uni wants this new dorm finished and ready to be used before the fall term starts in September. So far, the crew has built three retaining wall from concrete, mortar and chunks of limestone wrested from the hillside, and chiseled out the trenches for the foundation walls.

A self-erecting crane was set down about two weeks ago. The boom on this sucker is long enough that it skims the treetops next to my apartment building. I was on my balcony one day and the sight of the boom swinging in my direction made me instinctively duck. The boom is just about level with my apartment.

Crane skimming the trees by my apartment

Crane skimming the trees by my apartment

Jishou rests in a valley between two lines of low mountains, so if the university wants to expands, it has to crawl up the side of the mountains to the east of campus. The apartments for foreign teachers and students, and many postgrads lies on the top of one of those hills. Here’s a view from the roof of my building.

View from the top of my building

View from the top of my building

As a friend of mine used to say, “Progress sucks,” but we need more dorms. At least I am not right next door. I have no idea how those folks are coping with the noise.

It’s English-speaking season!
April 27, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Along with rains and peach blossoms, April here brings another spring event, the undergraduate English speaking contests.

As I did last year, I have served as a judge for several college contests, including my own college’s, and will of course judge the university finals next month. It’s a task I both enjoy and dread, because quite frankly it’s not that easy to be a judge for these things.

Case in point: my college had nearly a dozen sophomores participate in our competition, from which we judges had to choose two to represent the College of International Exchange next month. The criteria include the usual for public speaking — content, argument, stage presence, eye contact, inflection, diction — but also pronunciation, intonation and grammar. After all, these students are speaking a foreign language.

We found six who we judged as competitive, but could not narrow them down to two. Some had good public speaking skills, but their spoken English was lacking in some ways. Meanwhile, those who had very good spoken English lacked some public speaking skills.

What a headache!

The university, and the provincial and national contests, all include a three-minute prepared speech, a question-answer session, then a two-minute impromptu speech. Last year, there were questions on the impromptu, also, but I hear that section might be eliminated.

Given the number of students in our college competition, we decided to just require a prepared speech and to ask one question of each contestant in last week’s first (and we thought final) round. (There were also a dozen freshmen in the contest, to give them some experience.)

Well, that scheme was not all that successful, since we three judges could not settle on two final winners. So today we invited the six finalists to give us two-minute impromptus.

Almost the same results. We all agreed on one clear winner, a student with excellent English pronunciation and intonation but some weaknesses in public speaking. But choosing number two was not so easy. As you might expect, some students can deliver great prepared speeches, but have trouble with impromptu speaking. (Chinese students excel at memorizing things, since it’s a requirement of their education from primary schools, not to mention having to memorize thousands of characters just to read a newspaper or a book.)

Should we go with the student who quoted President Obama and referred to current events in her impromptu, but has relatively poor pronunciation? Or go with the student with very good English speaking skills, but is rather shy on stage? What about that one, who is very well-spoken, logical and animated, but has only one gesture while speaking? Or the one who is perfectly at ease in front of an audience, but has pronunciation and grammar problems?

In the end we settled on a contestant whose strengths lay in public speaking and quick thinking, but with some pronunciation issues. So, we have two representatives whose skills complement each other.

After some experiences judging, I can tell that foreign teachers and Chinese teachers have different criteria when they judge these things. The Chinese teachers focus on the spoken English part primarily, putting less emphasis on the content of the speech and the stage presence. Meanwhile, since I can more easily measure contestants’ accuracy in reproducing English, I tend to focus on the “big-picture” qualities: content, argument and stage presence. So, my scores tend to be widely divergent from my Chinese peers’.

The university competition will have seven judges, including me and the other foreign teacher, David. The provincial contest will have about the same composition.

Last year’s university competition was a bit of a fiasco, since none of the contestants understood the impromptu topic. It wasn’t a question, just a title, and overly vague at that. It made judging that aspect of the contest that much more painful, since no speaker did a very good job.

Public speaking is not easy, and for a lot of people, the prospect of speaking in front of an audience is terrifying. Factor in speaking in your second (or third) language and then not comprehending the speech topic, and you can imagine how those students must have felt.

So, I admire any student who is willing to stand in front of judges, peers and teachers and deliver an address in another language. It’s something I mercifully never had to do when studying Spanish or Portuguese. And I told my 27 students who risked losing face in our college contest that I was very proud of them, if only for their efforts. As someone who used to be in that “I’m terrified of public speaking” category, I know exactly how many of them felt on the stage. (One girl was almost close to tears, so nervous she was, but she was a trooper and in the end did a pretty good job.)

One result of these contests (and a conversation with one of my sophs — coincidentally, a finalist in our contest) is a new feature of my oral English classes: team impromptu speaking. I tried it last week, and both I and the students liked it. I divvied the classes up into teams of three or four, and gave each a question. They had 10 minutes to prepare their answers, and one member had to deliver their response in front of the class. I put the scoring criteria on the board, and awarded a prize to the winning team. (I owe one group ice cream, though.)

I can’t take credit for the concept. I’m sure other teachers have done something like it. But I was very pleased at the reaction I got from students, who said it was “meaningful.” That is high praise, so I am planning to try it again. I want my students to speak English in class, and so far, this seems to be the most effective in achieving that goal.

While judging English speaking contest can be a bit tedious, it does have its rewards — ideas for my classes and a better appreciation of my students. It’s not such a bad job.

All aboard!
May 15, 2010

TIANJIN, CHINA — I have set a land speed record, for me, anyway. Last Sunday I went nearly 209 mph (334 km/hr), in complete comfort.

No, not in a car. In one of China’s bullet trains.

Last weekend, I had to visit the US Embassy in Beijing (for reasons I will explain below), and I had set aside one day of my three-day junket to sight-see. While my hotel was fairly close to the Bird’s Nest and the Olympic Park, I decided to add another city to my list of visited places — Tianjin, a historic city that hosted foreign concessions as far back as the 1860s.

I would have skipped Tianjin for a more propitious time, but the idea of zipping along at an average speed of 150 mph was really appealing. I love trains.

Washing bullet trains for the next run

Washing bullet trains for the next run

China is completely gonzo about high-speed rail services. Already blessed with an extensive conventional rail network, China is building new HSR lines to connect the provincial capitals and major cities. One such HSR line is the 73 mile (117 km) run between Beijing and Tianjin.

China’s bullet trains are built by China High-speed Rail (CHR) using technology and designs shared by French, Japanese and German companies. They run on dedicated electrified lines on welded rails (no clickety-clack noises), and the cars have airline-style seating. Ticket prices are a bit steeper than for conventional trains; the Beijing-Tianjin run costs 58 yuan ($8.50 — yeah, Americans, it sounds cheap, but a sleeper berth on the overnight train from Changsha to Jishou is 118 yuan. Everything’s relative.)

The Tianjin bullet train leaves about every hour from Beijing South Train Station. From my hotel just north of the fourth ring road, it took me about 40 minutes to get to the south station by subway. The south railway station is as spacious and modern as any airport terminal, and nowhere near as busy and crowded as the west station, where I would go to take a train to Changsha, Hunan.

Beijing South Railway Station

Beijing South Railway Station

Having never been on any train faster than the Metroliner (and that was a long time ago), I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of a ride. Our train pulled out of the station right on time and we quickly accelerated to 150 km/hr in less than 2 minutes. Six minutes later, we were trucking along at 330 km/hr. There wasn’t really a sensation of traveling that fast, other than the scenery whipping past and the overhead display reporting the speed. (We peaked at 334 km/hr.) The right-of-way is not as flat and straight as a pane of glass — the cars do sway a little bit from side to side — but overall the ride was as smooth as flying in a jetliner in calm air. And the noise level was much less than a jet’s.

Once in Tianjin station, I discovered that it, like Beijing South, is huge and modern. There is a wide plaza surrounding the station complex (there are shops nearby) and fronting the Hai He 海河 River, which runs through downtown. The place is big enough that it took me quite a bit of walking to find the ticket office to buy my return ticket. Contrary to my experience so far, the ticket office is right next to the station entrance.

With not much time available, I took a quick walk around Tianjin along the river, using a map I bought in the station to keep myself from getting lost. Like many other Chinese cities, Tianjin is in the middle of a building boom. There are so many self-erecting cranes around the Middle Kingdom that they should make it the national bird! Here, it seems architects want to preserve, or at least recapture, the European flair that Tianjin has had for the past 150 years. Instead of the slab-sided, white-tiled, utilitarian edifices seen in most Chinese towns, the buildings in Tianjin celebrate a diversity of architectural styles. There’s also an Italian style village on the other side the station, but I had to meet friends for dinner in Beijing at 6, so I skipped the village.

Cranes -- China's national "bird"

Cranes — China’s national “bird”

My return train left at 4:15, and I was back at my hotel by 5:30. This is what rapid transit is supposed to be — rapid.

So why was I in Beijing in the first place? To get a legal document notarized. Notaries public do not exactly grow on trees in China, so I had to visit the embassy in Beijing or one of the consulates. Thanks to a perplexing division of provinces among them, I naturally could not visit any of the consulates in three provinces contiguous to Hunan (Hubei, Guangzhou and Sichuan). Oh, no, I had to travel clear across the country to Beijing! Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Since I have no classes on Mondays, I reckoned if I flew roundtrip to Beijing, I could just barely fit the trip into a three-day weekend. Here was my itinerary:

Saturday: Take the 11:30 am bus from Jishou north bus station to Changsha, arrive at 4 pm. Walk about four blocks to the airport shuttle bus terminus at the Civil Aviation Hotel. Arrive at the airport at 5 pm. Board my plane at 6:30 pm. Arrive in Beijing at 9:30 (weather delays in Changsha … again). Take the airport shuttle train and subway to my hotel. In bed by 11.

Sunday: I woke up late, so I didn’t really leave for Tianjin until about 10 am. Came back by 6 pm.

Monday: Check out of hotel, take subway to embassy for a 10:30 am appointment. Leave embassy with my documents notarized by 11:30. Eat lunch — American-style burgers at Fatburgers. Take the subway and airport train back to the airport early. (I figured I had no time for sightseeing.) Board plane at 5:00, arrive Changsha train station around 8 pm. Buy sleeper berth ticket for the 11:44 pm overnight train. (Incidentally, this was the same train that I took to reach Jishou the first time in August 2008.) Read a book for two hours, chat with two young Chinese for another hour.

Tuesday: Arrive in Jishou at 7:30 am. Eat breakfast, shower, teach two classes beginning at 10:10 am. Lunch, then spend four hours judging the university English-speaking contest.

To my delight, it all went smoothly. Since I was not traveling on a holiday, there were no egregious airport delays, and there were plenty of train tickets available even two hours before departure from Changsha (25 hard-bed sleepers, and more than 200 seats).

And more importantly, I managed the entire trip almost entirely on my own. A friend helped me book the airline tickets with her company’s usual travel agency. Everything else I did myself, even with my fractured Chinese. Although the whirlwind trip was pretty tiring, and annoying in its premise, it also gave me a big shot of self-confidence as an independent traveler.

Great Firewall now blocks Tor proxies: bye-bye Facebook
May 29, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — It was bound to happen someday. I am now completely shut off from Facebook. So if you want to communicate with me, either use my blog here, IM me or send me an email.

China started blocking Facebook (and other sites) about a year after I arrived. Until recently, I had been able to use the Tor proxy network to “climb the firewall” and access Facebook. China’s net nannies had been blocking the IP addresses of public Tor connections, but I was able to get private bridge IPs by email.

Now even the private bridge connections don’t work. My Tor’s log reports “problem bootstrapping. Stuck at 5%” and there it stays. Apparently, China’s censors have found a way to render the Tor proxy network ineffective, thereby shutting us netizens in China out of the wider WorldWide Web.

Internet restrictions here typically get more severe as we approach significant anniversaries, such the Tiananmen Square protests by university students on June 5, 1989. In fact, I just discovered that just trying to visit sites (wikipedia,, etc.) that discuss the events is useless. It seems those are being blocked, too.


Perhaps the blocks will be removed after the anniversary passes. Or maybe not. Meanwhile, instant messaging and emails (and comments on this blog) are the only Internet ways to communicate with me.

By the way, Janice, the books arrived this week. Many thanks!

Compensating for the Tholian Web
June 1, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — I forgot to mention one other limitation of the new, improved Great Firewall of China (the Tholian Web*) — I can no longer upload my photos to my Picasaweb account.

I paid for 80 GB of storage there, and I now I can’t get to it. Now I’m really pissed!

Strangely, until China initiated the Tholian Web, I couldn’t get to my Picasaweb site with my browser, but I could use Picasa 3 to upload my photos there. Then, my Facebook visitors could see the photos under my page’s Picasa tab. Now even uploading photos to Picasaweb is impossible, perhaps as a result of Google pulling its operations off the mainland and into Hong Kong. Or some weird technical glitch with Picasa 3’s latest upgrade.


Anyway, since my Flickr space is nearing its capacity for a free account, I opened an account at Photobucket. You can see some photos of Beijing and Tianjin there (including the ones already at Picasaweb) and videos I’ve made of my students with my cell phone.

If you’re feeling really brave, you can also visit my QQ zone (QQ is China’s AOL equivalent) to see my photos there, but all the menus are in Chinese. Look for the 相册 (xiàng cè — album) tab.

Tholian Web-TOS* Tholian Web — First seen in the original Star Trek series, a Tholian Web is an impenetrable energy trap “spun” by the Tholians around a space ship. Needless to say, the resourceful crew of the USS Enterprise manage to escape.

When sexism can be inspirational
June 2, 2010

Sally Liu

Sally Liu

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday was Children’s Day in China, and in my oral English class I asked students to talk about their influential childhood memories. One girl, Sally L., had an especially moving story.

Sally’s parents are farmers and have two daughters. Her uncle, meanwhile, also farms and has at least one son. She related an argument between her father, his brother and Sally’s grandfather that left a deep impression on her 7-year-old mind.

Since she was so young, Sally says she can’t remember all the details of the argument, but it involved her uncle wanting some the land her father owned, but was not at the time cultivating. Her father refused to give it to his brother, and in no time at all, the four men — father, uncle, grandfather and even her male cousin — were yelling at each other and threatening to get physical. The outcome was that Sally’s parents retained possession of the land.

Her uncle wanted the land because he had a son, while Sally’s dad had daughters. In rural China, boys are held in higher esteem than girls, so the uncle apparently believed keeping the land for two daughters was a complete waste of good farmland. Instead, he wanted his brother to give it to him and his son, because boys are “worth more” than girls and can do more than girls.

“That’s why my dream was to go to university,” Sally told us, “because I wanted to show them that girls can be as good as boys, or even better.”

As her teacher, I can truthfully say that Sally is one of my best students, and was a class officer for a time last year. She works hard, pays attention in class, gets good marks and, to top it off, has pretty good English speaking skills. Her big smile shines on me every class from the front row.

Now I understand why she works so hard.

Time out to tell some tales
June 21, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am in the midst of reading the first drafts of about 70 term papers, but I wanted to take time out to write about a couple of cool things that happened today.

One of my former students here in China is getting married next week. This was no big surprise, since she told me it was going to happen sometime this year. Today, when we went to lunch, T. threw me a couple of curve balls.

First, she’s pregnant — one of those happy little accidents that sometimes proceed marriage. Despite the conservative culture of China, being pregnant just before marriage is no big deal, as long as the husband-to-be is still in the picture. The funny thing was, when I accidentally ran into the two of them downtown yesterday, I thought to myself, “T. looks pregnant.”

Now, she’s only three months along, and not showing yet. (T. is very petite, and has not gained weight, so her size was not the reason for my hunch.) But, she was walking a little like a pregnant woman — her shoes were the problem there, she says — and her dress was similar in design to a maternity dress, gathered under her boobs. Purely accidental, T. says; it was a summer dress, and anyway she still has a tiny waist. Despite being wrong about all the obvious visual clues, I was still pretty impressed I had guessed correctly.

Of course, I am also very happy for her and her fiance. It’s my first student baby as a teacher in China! (Hm, that’s one sentence that could be totally taken out of context …) She’s my first Chinese student to have a baby. (Better.) So, I feel like I just passed a milestone in my career here.

Then, while we were eating, T. also revealed that, while she has not hidden her condition from her friends, she has not told her other teachers either about her wedding or her baby. In fact, she doesn’t plan to tell them until after the wedding is over. Her reasoning was merely a matter of practicality: if she invites one teacher, she has to invite all of them, and her family is trying to keep the wedding as small as possible.

So, that means I am the only teacher clued in, which also means I am more a friend than a teacher. I am pleased beyond words, because I’ve become very fond of T. and her family. And now I also must keep my mouth shut in the office for the next week, lest I be responsible for any hurt feelings.
[ADDENDUM: A few months after this post, T. miscarried. She had looked really awful previous to the miscarriage, very thin and wan. I felt as sad as if I had lost a grandchild. A year later, they had a healthy baby boy, whose English name is Ben. I was there at the hospital to see him on his day #1.]

Now, I want to put in a plug for Mark Twain. Yeah, really. Tonight, I gave the next-to-last English lesson to Nikita, the little Ukrainian boy who lives below me. Since we had finished his English textbook from Ukraine, we switched to a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I had found in a Xinhua Bookstore in Beijing last month. It’s an abridged version for Chinese learners of English, with a CD included.

It’s slow going. Nik is 9, and his English vocabulary is still pretty small, and this edition is maybe geared for Chinese middle school students. After three lessons, we have only just finished reading the familiar whitewashing-the-fence escapade. Nik’s Dad reads the story before class, and translates the harder English words and idioms into Ukrainian (or Russian, I’m not really sure). If he gets stumped, he asks me for help. Then Nik reads the story in English, with me coaching his pronunciation and Grisha clarifying the parts Nik doesn’t understand.

Sounds tedious, but it’s great! Nik already knows the story; he’s read it in translation and seen cartoon versions of it. Of course, his Dad knows it, too.

So picture the three of us hovering over this book, and reaching the part where Tom shows off his handiwork to Aunt Polly. Grisha beams with his explanation of the conclusion of the tale. Nik appreciate learning all the details of the same tale he watched yesterday in a cartoon. And I sit there in wonder that a Ukrainian father and son — in China — are happily relishing a tale about a mischievous boy written by an American who died almost exactly 100 years before. (Twain died April 21, 1910, after that year’s apparition of Halley’s Comet.)

Master storytellers give us tales that transcend time and space. Thank you, Mr Clemens. You have blessed us all.

Wait — is this in my job description?
June 30, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — I think one of my students just came out to me. Or maybe the student was just sharing about a friend coming out. Hard to say.

My students have to keep diaries, which they hand in about every other week. I read them, make lots of red marks in them, and hand them back a week later (usually). Most of the entries are pretty mundane, but occasionally a student will reveal his or her deepest emotions, worries, troubles or thoughts. I usually respond by writing something in their diary, since I assume the student is attempting some kind of dialogue that may be less embarrassing than talking face to face.

Since I’m sworn to secrecy on this particular matter, and all the other personal items in the diaries, I am going to be deliberately vague here. I teach about 300 students, none of whom will likely see this post, but gossip transcends space and time. I am leaving out a lot of details. I am not going to say whether the student is male or female. I will refer to the student only as A., a letter which has no connection to A.’s English or Chinese name.

(Note to my Chinese students abroad using Facebook. Please DO NOT talk about this article with anyone at JiDa. 谢谢阿!)

In A.’s diary, A. said the entries were about B., A.’s best friend from middle school. In the first entry, B. had recently come out to A., hoping that A. (as B.’s best friend) would be accepting and understanding, which A. apparently is. Then A. wrote that the following entries would be in the first person.

(Literature buffs will see two techniques potentially in play here: framing and first-person narrative. My senior thesis involved point of view, so I’m onto these little tricks writers play. Is B. really A., writing as B.? Is A. merely a conduit for B.’s own diary entries? Is A. just switching POV to make the narrative easier to write? Or is A. just trying to be secretive?)

The second entry described B.’s realization in middle school that B. really preferred hanging out with members of the same sex, and was more attracted to same-sex friends. (American readers: middle school in China includes what we normally call high school, just to be clear.) Once in college, B. still felt rather confused about such feelings and was excited to discover by chance an online LBGT chat group. There, B. found many other non-straights who were refreshingly candid about their lives, feelings, desires and, in particular, preferences in sexual partners.

Here it gets rather dicey. In later entries, B. started to chat up some of the people in the chat group, looking for in B.’s words, a spouse. (My reaction to that was, “Aren’t you rushing things a bit?”) B. and one other member hit it off online, and they agreed to meet for dinner.

(Alarm bells go off in my head.)

Now, B.’s dinner partner was older than B., and from the description of what ensued, the dining companion was clearly trolling for some tasty young tail. They met a few other times, while B. continued to chat up other people online. B. found out partner #1 had had an affair. They quarreled, but ended up kissing (well, Partner #1 liplocked B. in the midst of the fight) and soon ended up back in bed together.

(I know, it sounds like a soap opera. Bear with me.)

Then B. decided someone B.’s own age might be more appropriate as a “mate.” B. met another person, and they really got along with each other. Partner #1 (the troller, remember) found out and suggested they all have dinner together. Eventually, the three of them ended up in bed together. Then, B. decided this lifestyle is not what B. really wants, and broke up with partner #1.

Here the diary entries end.

In my comments, I kept up the pretense (if it is one) that we are talking about B. coming out, and not A., my student. I praised A. for being accepting and loyal to B., despite A.’s initial shock at being told B. was homosexual. Then, I suggested B. is foolish to meet people at random from online chat rooms. Such liaisons can be dangerous. B. might be very lonely, I suggested, and wanting to share worries and feelings with A. or some other trusted friend. Perhaps B. was relieved to find others in the same situation, and was running (unwisely) to them for solace. Looking for love in all the wrong places, as the old country-western song goes.

I am worried about A., or B., or both of them, because Chinese college students are relatively innocent (as in, not street-wise) compared to American kids, and because homosexuality is a Big Taboo here.

Students in China live very sheltered and proscribed lives. Their adolescence is a high pressure time of studying, testing, and extra lessons which gets progressively more frantic as they approach the gaokao — the college entrance examination held in early June. It isn’t until they get out of high school that kids even have time to explore things like love and sex. I’m not sure the seedier side of chat rooms ever enters their minds.

Chinese and Americans are a lot alike in their views about sex, but Chinese are much less open. Where America was 60 years ago is where China is now. Sexuality in China is one of those Things That Shall Not Be Discussed, unless it’s between people of the same age and sex, and even then with a certain amount of shame and embarrassment.

(Nevertheless, many Chinese hotels thoughtfully provide condoms, lubricant and spare pairs of underwear — at ridiculously high prices — in the rooms. And there are public service placards near hotel elevators recommending condom use. Escort and massage services slide business cards under your door, too, in case you’re traveling alone. There are no porn channels, however.)

While sex education nominally exists in the schools, my students have told me that some middle school teachers duck the lessons entirely by writing website links on the board, and telling the kids to read up on it by themselves. Other teachers don’t even get that far.

Romance, even holding hands, is strictly prohibited in middle schools. Parents forbid dating, sometimes until after college graduation. Then, there is pressure to hurry up and get married to produce an offspring before age 30. From a Western perspective, it’s all quite weird.

The nearly universal expectation is for heterosexuality. For a child to be gay or lesbian (or any other flavor of sexuality) would be abhorrent and very shameful for most Chinese parents. Even some peers would be repulsed if they found out a fellow student was homosexual. Mores are changing, albeit slowly, as Chinese have become more accepting of gay and lesbian (and androgynous) music, TV and film stars. Young people, especially, seem less bothered by the notion than older folks.

Even so, for A. (or B., as you wish) to come out is an Earthshattering Event, in this context. For my student to discuss it at length in a diary means A. was clearly struggling with the issue, without actually asking me for advice. (Chinese are not so direct, sometimes)

This is completely new to me. Of course, I have gay and lesbian friends, I’ve had openly gay and lesbian students (there were two girls one year who simply couldn’t keep their hands off each other in the hall), but no one has ever come out to me. So I was surprised, and completely flummoxed as to how to react. I’m worried about B. (who might be A.), and B.’s “risky behavior,” as we say in American educationese. My spider-sense tells me B. is heading for trouble, so I hope my words help guide B. (or A.) on a more sensible path to a happier life.

And people think teaching is easy.

Call Roto-Rooter!
July 14, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Recently, we’ve had a lot of rain here, which is typical for this time of the year. When it rains heavily, some parts of campus get flooded. It happened once last year, and twice this year (so far).

Basically, the storm drains can’t seem to handle the runoff, and the area around the dorms and the stadium ends up with knee-deep water. Someone took a video of the flooding last week, and uploaded it to, one of China’s answers to Youtube.

The title, “吉首大学校园再次被淹” (Jishou Daxue Xiao Yuan Zai Ci Bei Yan), means “Jishou University Campus Flooded Once Again.” You can see the street between the stadium and the dorms, where a bus is parked, the greens near the dorms, people walking along the sidewalks, some stores, and workers setting up temporary “bridges” so the students can get out of their dorms to go eat or take their exams.

My dorm is on the top of a hill, so we send all our rainwater down to the student dorms. So thoughtful we are.

Incidentally, Youku is one of the best sites to watch TV and movies online. There are English language movies, too. If you visit that link, the quick navigation menu is along the top of the page. This is the link for TV: 电视剧; and this is for movies: 电影.

From left to right, the menu items are: 首页 (Home Page), 世界杯 (The World Cup), TV, movies, 综艺 (variety entertainment), 视频 (video), 空间 (user space), 看吧 (kanba, which has a variety of videos, including COSplay), and 分类 (classifications, which gives you a drop down menu of specific topics).

You can download videos from Youku, but you have to install their downloader. The other big video-sharing site is, which does not require a downloader. More about that later.

Put another nickel in the nickelodeon
July 19, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’m staying another year here. As it was last year, the decision was an easy one to make.

Logically speaking, it doesn’t make too much sense. Jishou is a small city, with few (Western-style) amenities. It takes at least two hours to get to the nearest airport. And Jishou University is an also-ran in the rankings of China’s institutions of higher learning.

My friends in bigger cities in China have encouraged me to look elsewhere for teaching jobs in China. One said, “The pay will be better, and the students will be more excellent.”

Yes, and no.

No question about the pay. If I moved to Beijing, or even Changsha, I could probably double my pay pretty easily. Of course, my expenses would also increase, and I’d have the hassles of dealing with big-city life. (Changsha has 5 million people. Beijing has 22 million, making NYC look like a small town.) Big cities have higher costs of living, so it’s questionable whether moving would increase my net income to make moving worth it.

I’ve lived in small cities for the last 32 years, two that were minuscule (60,000 population each), one just a bit bigger than Jishou (800,000) and another of 2.3 million. While it is generally true that living in a small community means a small salary, the trade-offs compensate for the comparative lack of dollars, or yuan.

Food costs are low. Taxi fares are low (since Jishou is so tiny). The people are friendly. If I should decide to rent an apartment, I could probably do it and not go broke. A friend here in Jishou showed me the three-bedroom flat she and her fiancé have bought for ¥240K (about $35,000). It’s got wood floors, a nice kitchen, big bath, and a view of the river. That kind of money might get you a squalid shoebox in Beijing.

And there’s the advantage of being one of very few foreigners around for miles. Western teachers in Beijing or Shanghai are a dime a dozen, and often treated that way by employers. Here, I get considerably more respect.

So I could get more money if I moved, but at a price.

Moving to a bigger market does not mean I would get better students, however. I’ve taught for 25 years, and I can’t imagine finding another group of students who are any more diligent and serious about their futures than the ones I have now.

One of my former JiDa students now working in Beijing told me she’s frustrated with some of her co-workers who graduated from the top unis like Xinhua U or Beijing U. “They’re bookworms,” Jaycee said. “They have no social skills.”

To get into a top university in China, a student has to score very well on the 高考 gaokao, the annual college entrance exam. Parents and schools program teenagers’ lives so densely with classes, tutors and test preparation courses that it’s no exaggeration to say some students have done nothing but study for the two years preceding the gaokao.

So, if you judged my students just on their gaokao scores, you might be inclined to believe they are second- or third-rate students.

But you would be very wrong.

As many American educators (but not politicians) know, test scores do not measure the quality of the student accurately. It’s one reason why American universities and colleges look at other indicators besides an applicant’s SAT or ACT scores: their extracurricular activities, grades, difficulty of courses, school location, family background, to name a few.

While I wish I could say my students are like the children in Lake Wobegon — all above average — I would not trade my students for all the tea in China. Certainly, a few are a little on the lazy side. Others are what we in the States might call “C students” — hard workers but lacking some extra ingredient that enables them to excel. But most of them are very good students. I care for each and every one, no matter what their grades.

Besides, I’ve learned almost all their names, at least their English ones.

My working conditions are pretty damn good, compared to the horror stories I have heard from other foreign teachers. My class sizes at JiDa are modest by Chinese standards, 25 to 40 students, so I can teach them effectively. I get paid on time every month. I get along well with my Chinese colleagues. I have a comfortable apartment, rent-free. If I need a jug of drinking water delivered to my flat, it comes within hours instead of days. My foreign affairs officers are extraordinarily helpful, and they speak really good English.

Then, there are personal considerations. I have friends in town, not just student friends who will someday leave Jishou. I can find my way around town almost entirely on my own. The weather here leaves a little to be desired, but it’s not much different from Louisville’s, and I put up with that for 25 years. The air is clean and breathable (except for downtown). There are no sandstorms, typhoons, earthquakes, or rioting.

It’s not idyllic. What place is? I am mourning the loss of two cherished friendships. One person whom I considered a dear friend has not talked to me since she left for Beijing a year ago. Another friendship I ruined myself by being culturally insensitive about male-female relationships in China; she and I are cordial to one another, but that’s about it for now. And there’s the little issue of being divorced after nearly 24 years of marriage. These feelings of course would follow me wherever I go.

For the time being, I see no reason to pull up stakes and go somewhere else. Been there, done that. As my Facebook page says, I’m happy in Hunan. We’ll see what another year has in store for me here.

The randomness of inaccessibility
July 27, 2010

UPDATE 28/7/2010 11:25 am: And now everything is back to “normal.” But Firefox went south on me, Winamp got trapped in a loop somehow, and even taskmgr couldn’t kill it. After I shut down the computer, and restarted, the “blocked” sites listed below were accessible again. So I laid blame on the Great Firewall, but maybe it was my laptop or Vista Home edition.

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday, I could access a whole slew of my favorite websites. Today, I can’t. I blame the Great Firewall of China.

In fact, my own website (this one) is now blocked. I am using the Ultrasurf proxy to climb the Great Firewall just to post this.

And to aggravate me even more, Wikipedia seems also to be blocked, just as I was beginning the last phase of a long term project to edit Wiki entries about locations in Hunan, using my students’ research papers as the sources. I managed to edit the Jishou entry two days ago. Now, I’ll have to use the proxy to continue.

Here’s a partial list of what I could access yesterday, but cannot today.

And here’s what seems so far to be unaffected.

It’s not the end of the world, since I can still access them. But it’s a nuisance, and there seems to be no pattern to the blocking. Why block the NY Times and not the WaPo? Why block a non-political webcomic? Or Yahoo’s mail service? Or my own site?

On the other hand, maybe the university’s DNS servers have taken a short summer vacation, but that would still not explain the randomness of inaccessibility. (Hmm, good book title. Remember everyone: I have copyright! It just became the title of this post.)

Chinese netizens were all a-twitter about the sudden accessibility of porn sites several weeks. The ostensible reason for China’s tight control of the Internet has been to clamp down on online pornography. When porn came online again, it just revealed what everyone already knows — China’s net nannies want to restrict website access for political reasons.

The Associated Press (always quick on the uptake) only ran a piece about it four days ago. Now the sites mentioned in the AP article are blocked again. Apparently, someone in China reads the AP wire.

WordPress, the platform I use for this blog, allows me to email plaintext posts to a secret email address. I may resort to using that feature if Ultrasurf stops working, as the Tor proxy network did earlier this year.

Plus ça change, plus la meme chose.

July in Jishou
Aug. 2, 2010
JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my Facebook followers left me a message, complaining that she hadn’t heard much from me lately. So, this one’s for you, Angela!

The spring term ended here on July 15, but I gave my exams much earlier than that, on July 1 and 2. While my students prepped for their other exams, I read their research papers and composition exams. For a solid week. After reading several second and third drafts of the papers, I finally handed in my grades on July 14.

But I was not entirely free yet. The parents of some of the students I had been tutoring during the fall and spring wanted me to continue their lessons for the rest of July. Fortunately, not everyone wanted the summer classes, so I only had eight students in all, and most of them could come to my apartment for lessons. Some days I taught for three hours, others for four; and Sundays I was free.

I’ll tell some anecdotes about these kids now.

Marike is 9. Her daily schedule during the summer included an hour of violin lessons, two hours with me, and two hours of writing (calligraphy) lessons. She did not get a midday nap. (During the school year, Marike had “panda eyes” when I would see her on Sunday mornings.) One of our summer lessons was a two-person dialogue about shopping. I thought it was pretty easy, but our insistence that Marike (a shy girl) do the dialogue with her friend made her break down in tears. She was just too tired to put up with it, she said. For the next lesson, we played Scrabble, which was less intimidating and the kids really enjoyed.

Her best pal is Sally, who at first I thought was a little lazy. I was wrong. She’s just easily bored, and I was boring her. Oops! Sally has the same schedule as Marike.

Julie is also 9. She and her best pal, Billie, are energetic and outgoing, but of the two, Julie is more serious about learning English. Her vocabulary is pretty astounding for her age. Julie and I can chat on QQ. Jane is their classmate, but not quite as accomplished in English yet.

Shawn is 11. He’s quite smart, and often annoying. Like Julie, his vocabulary is pretty good, but sorry, buddy, hers is better. He and Julie were usually the winners in the Scrabble games.

Lee is 15. His mom teaches in the PE college. Our first two lessons of oral English were painful, because I couldn’t get him to talk more than a few words. Then his other English teacher (one of my sophs) dragged him to an English corner at the teacher’s college. Now Lee jabbers away in English, and I have to remind him that the lesson is over.

Cara is 9. She came as a companion for her friend, Cathy, who had spent fall term in English-medium schools in Singapore. Originally, I was to teach Cathy oral English, so that she didn’t lose the advantage she got while in Singapore. Instead, I ended up having real conversations with Cara while we went through our lessons. Cara, like Lee, wanted each lesson to last longer than the scheduled time.

Saturday was the last day of my summer lessons, but on Sunday I went to a friend’s class as a favor. She was also ending her lessons for the summer. Her kids’ names are Mark, Jack, Linda, Michelle and Sunny. All but Linda — who is 8 — are 11 years old. I spent about an hour chatting with them. Their conversational skills are limited, but little Linda can talk more than the older kids. I asked them what they liked to do in their free time. Mark likes to sing, so we sang “Auld Lang Syne” together. Michelle likes to dance, so I invited her to waltz. She agreed, if very self-consciously. Jack is eager to show himself, and Sunny (I learned later) has overcome some speech defects so that she now pronounces English quite clearly.

I met friends downtown later that evening, and ran into Michelle and her dad. She said hello to me, and introduced me to her dad. Pretty good for an 11-year-old Chinese, I should say. (I am not sure if she said I was her dance partner, though. We need to work on our moves first.)

The weather here has been, in a word, scorching. In the high 30s, which corresponds to the mid- to high- 90s in the USA (remember that 37 Celsius is body temperature, 98.6 Fahrenheit). So, I avoid going out during the day, exiting my air-conditioned flat only for dinner and evening activities when the air is less stifling.

August is my travel month this year. First, I will visit Hefei, the capital two provinces over in Anhui, where a former neighbor here now lives with her new husband. The trip will be by high-speed rail, taking just five hours from Changsha at top speeds of about 250 km/hr (155 mph). Two of us (both friends of the Hefei woman) leave on Wednesday.

After Hefei, I may visit Guangzhou (by bullet train from Changsha, just 2.5 hours) and/or Shenzhen, where I also have friends. Around the 18th, I will fly to Beijing (high-speed rail from Hunan to the national capital is not yet complete) to meet the new teachers from America and their 11-year-old daughter. We will fly back to Jishou by way of Changde together. The last junket will be (hopefully) to Shanghai, perhaps to see the World Expo, but mostly to see the city itself.

Classes begin Sept. 6. I am hoping I will know which classes I will be teaching by then. Some things never change.

Traveling 1
Aug. 5, 2010

NORTH OF ZHANGJIAJIE,HUNAN — Right now, I’m on the 10:16 train to Changsha, which is sitting on a siding to let a faster train pass.

This part of the trip is not so exciting. This is the slow train (K9026), which takes about 8 hours to reach Changsha. Besides that, it’s not air conditioned and it’s about 95F outside. On the bright side, the fans work and it’s not crowded.

Traveling 2
Aug. 5, 2010

NORTH OF CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Now I’m on the bullet train between Changsha and Wuhan, the provincial capitals of Hunan and Hubei, respectively.

We are zipping through the countryside at least at 100 mph. (There’s no display reporting our speed.) it’s quieter than an airliner — you can hear the air conditioner fans — but you know you’re on a train. The occasional clickety-clack noise gives it away.

This is not a bullet train like the one in Tianjin I rode in May. This one (train D150) uses similar rolling stock, but runs on existing and upgraded trackage. Top speed is about 250 km/hr (155 mph).

We left Changsha at 7:30 and arrive at Wuhan about 10:30. Very quick and relaxing.

Traveling 3
Aug. 5, 2010

ALMOST TO HEFEI, ANHUI — We’ve been cruising through the hills of western Anhui province for the last hour, peaking at 252 km/hr between stops.

This 15-unit train is bound for Shanghai, which it will reach in another three hours. The seats are comfortable, like airline seats but with twice as much leg room. You can bring own food and drink on board, and hot and cold drinking water is available. While there is a dining car, many passengers prefer to pack their own food.

No movies, though. China Rail needs to work on that amenity. Instead, I’ve been listening to my music. Just before writing this, I heard South Africans Johnny Clegg and Savuka sing “Asimbonanga.”

Welcome to the world. Listening to South African music on a Chinese bullet train.

Also, welcome to central China’s summer heat. It was 42 C in Wuhan when we left. That’s about 108 F. We visited HuangHeLou (Yellow Crane Tower), then retreated to the train station to cool off for two hours.

Hey, hey, Hefei
Aug. 13, 2010

HEFEI, ANHUI — I have spent nearly a week in Hefei 合肥, where a friend of mine from JiDa now lives with her husband. They married in June, but because of exams I and her other university friends couldn’t come then. This was in some ways a make-up trip, though I had already posted a wedding gift.

MeiMei is fully bilingual in Chinese and Russian, thanks to several years living in Minsk as a student. Her English (and maybe her Chinese, though I cannot tell) has a Russian accent. In addition, she’s an excellent pianist.

Her job at JiDa was as translator/interpreter for the exchange students and music teachers from Ukraine, but midway through last school year, there was less call for her linguistic abilities. Meanwhile, still unmarried at the age of 30, MeiMei was facing the Chinese cultural pressure to find a husband before she got “too old.” So, she decided to quit her university job, and go back home to Hefei to find a mate, while living with her parents and supporting herself teaching piano and Russian.

About two weeks ago, she and I were chatting on QQ, and she asked about my plans for the future. MeiMei suggested I consider working in Hefei. Then I asked if I could visit her this month to see what Hefei is like. She enthusiastically said yes. So, in short order, I and her other friend and former neighbor, Ailsa, were planning a week’s trip to Hefei.

Hefei is the provincial capital of Anhui, which is northeast of Hunan province. China is building out a high speed rail system at a dizzying pace, starting with the provincial capitals, so Changsha, Hunan, and Hefei are already connected with HSR.

Ailsa had already bought a train ticket to Changsha, where she lives, so rather than taking the bus as I usually do, I agreed to keep her company on the eight-hour (slow) train ride. We booked our tickets to Hefei at the Jishou train station. We were on the D150 train to Wuchang station in Wuhan, and then the D3062 train from Hankou station in Wuhan to Hefei.

The distance between Changsha and Wuhan is about 362 km, and the D150 covers that in three hours, a third of the time the next fastest train (the T98A) takes. That works out to an average speed of 121 km/hr (75 mph). The distance from Wuhan to Hefei is 364 km, but the D3062 covers that in 2:23, also a third of the next fastest time, at an average speed of 156 km/hr (97 mph). The ticket price for each leg was 112 RMB, or about $17.

[Incidentally, you can take the D3062, or one of the other D-class trains, from Wuhan and be in Shanghai 820 km (512 miles) away in six hours. Amazing.]

Our “layover” in Wuhan was about six hours, giving us plenty of time to find our way from Wuchang station to Hankou station across town. We decided to do some sightseeing, since Ailsa had never been to Wuhan. But the heat was oppresive (42 C, or 107 F), so we just hit Yellow Crane Tower (Huanghelou 黄鹤楼), then grabbed an air conditioned cab to the air conditioned train station to recover.

Cities in the USA are lucky to have even one train station, which in a lot of places is now some kind of museum, office building or shopping mall. New York has two train stations, and as far as I know, no city in the States has more than two. By contrast, Wuhan has three railway stations now; the third one, in the northern suburbs, is part of the new G-class HSR trains connecting Wuhan to Changsha South station (also new) and Guangzhou North in Guangdong. The G-class trains zip between Wuhan and Guangzhou North — a distance of 1022 km (639 miles) — in just three and half hours. (That works out to be about 180 mph on average.) Tickets are $76, cheaper than airfares, so the domestic airlines have had to cut their prices to be competitive.

(We rode a G-class train from Wuhan to Changsha (90 minutes) on the way back, because it would allow both of us to grab afternoon buses home. The ticket was $25, only $8 more than the D150 fare.)

Anyway, on to our itinerary. We had dinner first with MeiMei and her husband, went to a KTV, then crashed at a hotel on Changjiang ZhongLu near Suzhou Lu downtown for the night. The next few days were packed with activities, as MeiMei and her parents wanted to show us a lot of sights.

Her dad is partner is a small metal stamping factory in Sanhe. The company supplies parts (brackets and chassis pieces) to JAC, one of China’s domestic auto and truck makers. As a boss, he gets a company car, similar in size and style to a Buick, and a driver, Mr Wang (no relation). So, we were able to tour Anhui in comfort.

We visited ancient cities at Sanhe, She (pronounced “shuh”) county and XiDi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Bao family gardens; the ancestral home of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin; the boyhood home of physicist Yang Zhenning*; the home of Qing dynasty diplomat Li Hongzhang; Fantawild, an amusement park; and the Golden Peacock Spa Resort. We also did some shopping — I needed a new supply of contact lenses, for one thing.

We ate a lot of great food, and drank of lot of expensive and potent Chinese liquor. Ailsa, who weighs all of 90 pounds soaking wet, held her own liquor very well. (One of the popular sayings in China is that Hunan woman are not only the most beautiful in the country, but also the best drinkers. Then again, they say the same thing about the women of all of the other provinces, too.)

Ailsa has been fretting over my newfound bachelorhood, and MeiMei wants us both to move to Hefei, to each find jobs and significant others. MeiMei was trying to fix Ailsa up with at least two young men during our trip, but I don’t think anything clicked. On Wednesday night, the two of them persuaded me to sign up with a Chinese matchmaking site, (literally, “family garden”). MeiMei and her husband, a busy journalist, confessed that they found each other on last year, and were both happy with the results.

So, Ailsa helped me navigate the elaborate questionnaires on the site — it’s all in Chinese naturally — and we’ll see what happens. My little precis of myself is all in English, so it’s going to stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not expecting un coup de foudre, but it can’t hurt to try.

Having taken a whirlwind tour of Anhui, which has many other places worth seeing, my next trek is to Beijing to welcome the new American family coming to JiDa. I’ve been to Beijing now five times, so I am almost an old hand at it. This time, I am going with two students from my college, neither of whom has been to Beijing, so I get to be a tour guide to five people. Holy crap. Wish me luck!

* Yang won the Nobel Prize in 1957 with T.D. Lee, for discovering a key law of the Standard Model of particle physics. Yang and experimental physicist C.S. Wu once gave a symposium at Palmer Labs at Princeton. My freshman year physics classes were in the same building almost four decades later. So maybe there are only a few degrees of separation between Yang and me. Another noteworthy fact about Yang is that, at the age of 82, was engaged to a woman only 28 years old. They married in 2005. Lucky fellow. I suspect they did not use, though.

Slow and steady wins the race
Aug. 15, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am happy to report that I can once again post to my Picasaweb photo site, as long as I use the Ultrasurf proxy client I downloaded a couple of months ago.

It’s slow, but at least I can use the 80 GB of Picasaweb storage space that I paid for. It also means my photos will automatically get posted to Facebook through the Picasa Facebook app.

So, as I wait for my photos to trickle slowly into my Picasaweb space, I can write some posts. Here’s the first one.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be … XiDi
Aug 15, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s taken me a few days to internalize all that I saw while in Hefei. So, here are few reflections on the Chinese concept of “ancient cities.”

As tourist attractions, they are somewhat over-rated. Stand anywhere in China, pick up a rock and throw it as hard as you can. Chances are, you will hit an ancient city. I mean, China’s civilization is at least 5,000 years old, and people have lived here since the Stone Age, so of course there are going to be ancient cities helter-skelter all over the countryside.

Some are more or less in their original state, having changed little outwardly in hundreds of years. XiDi is one of those cities. Although people still live there, in buildings that are perhaps a thousand years old, it has not become a tourist trap. We walked around XiDi (and Sanhe and Shexian) free from the hawkers and street vendors that haunt places like the Great Wall at Badaling and the ancient city closest to Jishou, Fenghuang.

Each ancient city has its own architecture and history, which the attentive tourist can perhaps enjoy more than the casual observer, but as attractions they are definitely low-key. Dare I say, they can be boring.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed visiting the places our hosts took us. Since I’m interested in history and architecture, and in the way people lived long ago, I could appreciate the winding streets and alleys, ornately carved wooden structures in homes, the protective walls around some of the cities, and the general atmosphere of great antiquity in them.

But you have to approach these kind of cities with the right mindset. Don’t expect to be bowled over by their sheer wonderfulness. Just learn to appreciate walking along the same streets on the same stones that people have used for at least 500 years.

On the other end of the scale are places like Fenghuang and CiqiKou, the ancient quarter in Chongqing, that have been commercialized and homogenized to the point of losing much of their original flavor or appeal.

I am not really knocking Fenghuang, which I have visited about eight times now, or even CiqiKou. The old buildings and narrow, winding streets are still there, but on top of the ancient foundations are modern layers of kitsch, hucksterism, barkers, and cheesy, overpriced tourist merchandise. Everyone in these ancient quarters seems only to want make a quick buck off the hapless tourists, and it makes no difference if the tourists are from China, Korea, Japan or the USA. Visiting Fenghuang, and other touristy places, requires determination not to let the rampant commercialism spoil the visit.

People here of course ask me if I like Fenghuang, and say honestly that I do. At night, the ancient quarter changes character entirely. Instead of barkers and hucksters, you can hear music and karaoke (note these are not always the same thing) wafting from the riverside bars. People seem much calmer, more in repose, and not necessarily because they’ve had a few brews after dinner. The atmosphere at night encourages you to slow down and enjoy life.

Just be careful buying the trinkets they sell, because chances are the goods were made in a factory in Guangdong (or even in Vietnam). The colorful handbags, dresses and skirts, hats, cheap jewelry are about as authentic to city X or Y as any other piece of tourist junk made in China and sold in the USA. You can buy the same things in downtown Jishou for half the price of what they are in Fenghuang (or any other ancient town, it seems).

One popular tourist trinket is a stitched leather “cowboy” hat. I’ve seen the same style hat everywhere I have gone in China, from Beijing to Hainan. And I can’t think of a more impractical hat for summer in southern China. No ventilation. You might as well put a plastic bag on your head. It’s cute, though, but it sure advertises you’re a tourist.

(Me, I went with the eminently more practical straw cowboy hat while in Hainan. At least my scalp can breath. Felt cowboy hats, like the kind you can buy it most parts of the US West and South, are completely absent in China, though some are made here. I am the proud owner of a green felt “weekender” hat sold by Minnetonka, which I bought in the States before coming to China. The hat of course was made in China, along with half the other things I brought with me.)

One byproduct of visiting all these historic cities is that I am slowly getting a feel for Chinese history. Folks here rattle off, “this is from the Qing dynasty, and that’s from the Ming, and this is Tang,” as if everyone knows what the hell they mean. I’m still hazy on most of the dynastic sequence, but I can least judge that Ming is older than Qing, and Tang is really really old. Just don’t ask for the exact dates. (Although I do know that the Qing ended in 1911, with the establishment of the Chinese Republic.)

I guess the reason I liked touring the ancient places in Anhui is the lack of commercialism I have learned to identify with “ancient cities” in China. Anhui is less developed than Hunan, which is saying a lot, since they are both largely farming provinces. So, creeping commercialism has blessedly not found its way to XiDi, Sanhe and Shexian. They are really very peaceful.

Midway between these two poles are the ancient towns in Guizhou that I visited in May. Zhenyuan is a reconstructed ancient town, sort of like Fenghuang with more breathing space, with steep mountains right up next to it. It’s commercialized, but with less fervency than Fenghuang. Likewise, Xijiang, “the city of 10,000 Miao homes,” is a real Miao settlement that has been turned into a tourist attraction by adding a shopping street and scheduled (cheesy ethnic) performances*, such as we see in Dehang, the much smaller Miao village outside Jishou. For some reason, the sellers in both places seemed more low key than the ones in Fenghuang or CiqiKou, but they still jacked their prices up for the holiday tourists.

* These shows give the audience a taste of Miao culture in much the same way Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows gave white audiences a taste of Native American life a hundred years ago. That is, the tastes are not so authentic. Though I can’t recall seeing any in the States, some Native American communities might package some cultural performances for tourists in a similar way as the Chinese Miao.

Team JiDa takes on Beijing
Aug. 21, 2010

Team JiDa prepares for takeoff

Team JiDa prepares for takeoff

BEIJING — I’ve been to Beijing now on four other occasions, two because I had to visit the US embassy and two just for kicks, hardly adequate qualifications to be a tour guide. Nevertheless, I am “leading” two Chinese students and three newly arrived Americans around the capital like I know what I’m doing.

Hoo boy.

A few months ago, my son told me he was going to visit me in China, so I advised him to come in through Beijing. Shortly afterward, I learned that Max, Karen and daughter Haley would be coming to Jishou U. So, I suggested they could arrive about the time my son would leave from Beijing, so I could drop him off and pick them up. Instead, ticket prices rose, and James couldn’t come this year, but I decided to stick to the second part of the plan and visit Beijing anyway.

While I was riding around in a car in Anhui province the week before, I was chatting on QQ. The foreign affairs office at JiDa wants us to fly in and out of Changde now, instead of Changsha, since the Changde airport (though small) is two hours closer to Jishou than Changsha’s. Sally Liu (a student I blogged about a while ago) lives near Changde and was on QQ one day. It occurred to me I could meet her in Changde and see the town before flying to Beijing.

Then I thought, “What the heck? I might as well ask if she wants to go with me.” A translator would make navigating Beijing a lot easier, so on the spur of the moment I asked Sally to come along. Of course, she said yes, since I offered to pay for her airfare and hotel room. This would have been money I had already budgeted for James’ visit, so it was not a big deal. But, her parents said (understandably) that she could only go if another girl went along.

This part was not easy as you might expect, since most of the students at JiDa were working and thus not free to leave with us. In the end, Vanilla (yes, that’s her English name) sent me a text and asked if she could go. Of course, this meant I would have to pay for her airfare, as well. I hesitated, but only briefly. Both of them have good English speaking skills, and are both very personable. I figured we’d make a good hospitality team.

My foreign affairs officers were a little surprised I was dragging two students with me, and even more surprised when I said I was paying their way. But, no one said I couldn’t take them, so on the 16th, Sally, Vanilla and I boarded an Airbus A321 for Beijing.

A few quick words about the Changde airport. It’s so small that people in Changde don’t realize they even have an airport. Changde has a population of about 2 million, but the airport is about the size of an airport in a US city of about 60,000. Until China Southern Airways started flying out of Changde, the only planes using the airport were light planes, like Cessnas.

More surprisingly, China Southern apparently manages to fill the 125-seat Airbus on the Beijing run five times a week. (Only one afternoon flight in or out per day, though.) When I lived in Casper, Wyoming, and Owensboro, Kentucky, the planes I flew in were much smaller prop-jets. Scale matters — more people in China by far.

Sally and Vanilla had never flown before, and in fact had never been to Beijing, so this was a big adventure for them. Both said they were so excited the night before that they couldn’t fall asleep until 2 am, then woke up at 6 am for a 10 am flight.

I had booked two rooms online at a hotel I have used before. It’s close to a subway station, so we could tour Beijing easily until the Americans arrived late Wednesday night. My companions were keen to see Beijing University, Qinghua University and Tian’anmen Square, and we also were to have lunch with a former JiDa student of mine in her home on Tuesday. The three of us nearly wore ourselves out walking around two huge campuses, the Square (in the rain) and Beijing’s subway stations. The Beijing subway is logically laid out and easy to navigate, but there are many long walks, especially at transfer stations.

My master plan was to spend our free time touring, but also to find a comfortable and inexpensive hotel in a Beijing hutong. Beijing’s mass transit shuts down and taxi fares skyrocket after 10:30 (as I found out to my dismay on previous visits), so it was imperative the hotel also offer an airport shuttle service.

After some online research, we settled on visiting the Beijing Hutong Inn near the Bell and Drum Towers and Houhai, north of the Forbidden City. Though the staff there speaks English, Sally and Vanilla arranged for three rooms — including a family room — and the airport shuttle ride far more efficiently than I could have managed. Everything was in place by noontime, so Team JiDa was able to visit Tian’anmen and have a carefree celebratory dinner before meeting the voluble Mr Xiao and his cushy Mercedes airport shuttle van.

(I hesitated a bit at the 300 yuan ($45) price tag for the 40-minute airport run, but after seeing the van and meeting Mr Xiao, I realized it was money well spent. Xiao was really helpful, giving my students clear directions into the airport arrivals hall. Besides, hosts are not supposed to be cheapskates.)

Team JiDa, now doubled in size, stumbled into bed around 2:30 am on Thursday. The following days would include hitting some tourist sites, shopping and arranging our trip back to Changde and Jishou. I’ll blog about all that later on.

Team JiDa takes on Beijing, part 2
Aug. 25, 2010

The Bird's Nest at night

The Bird’s Nest at night

BEIJING — Now that Team JiDa was complete, we had to decide what to do for the next few days. We had at our disposal four full days and for three of those days, clear and dry weather, so shopping and tourist attractions beckoned.

Though we had all gone to bed in the wee hours Thursday, we were all surprisingly alert by 9 am. First up, a walking trip to the Bank of China east of the hotel to exchange American greenbacks for Chinese yuan. Then, we took a not-so-successful trip to price cell phones in Zhongguancun 中关村, got lunch at Pizza Hut, and visited Yuanmingyuan 圆明园, which is a short subway ride away.

Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, was the site of the Imperial Gardens, which the British and French ransacked and burned to the ground in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Now, the Gardens of Perfect Brightness are one of Beijing’s many tourist attractions, and Westerners — even British and French ones — are welcome to visit.

Friday was our day to visit the Forbidden City. Though Sally, Vanilla and I had been to Tian’anmen Square twice so far, we saved the Forbidden City for the new teachers’ arrival. The Imperial Palace, as it is also known, is a huge place; a thorough visit would take two full days at least. We lasted only a few hours. Between the hot sun, the huge crowds, and wacked-out sleep schedules, all six of us were pretty tired after seeing only a fraction of the grounds. Besides, we also wanted to shop in Xidan 西单 and see the Water Cube and Birds Nest before calling it a day … um, night.

By the way, all of these sights are easily accessible by subway. We all had fare cards, which you can recharge when they run low on funds. The subway costs 2 yuan with cash or card, but the buses, which usually cost 1 yuan, are only 4 jiao (0.40 yuan) with the fare card. So, you don’t really need a lot of cash to navigate Beijing. Since we were all really tired from Friday’s excursions, I put us in two taxis for the trip from the Birds Nest back to the hotel. That fare was just 19 yuan for each cab.

On Saturday, it rained pretty heavily, and the newcomers were too pooped to go out, anyway. So we all stayed in the hotel and watched HBO and the BBC, which lucky Beijingers can get, at least in international hotels.

Blessedly, the weather cleared Sunday. We all agreed we would visit the Great Wall come rain or shine, but sunshine made the excursion much more pleasurable. We were all really excited about going, even me! My friend Orchid, who works in Beijing, had the day off and joined us, so seven happy people took the #919 bus to Badaling.

The cheapest way to get to Badaling is to ride the #919 bus, which with a fare card costs 12 yuan each way. (It’s 40 yuan cash money, though.) These buses leave from Deshengmen 德胜门 as soon as they are full, which doesn’t take long in tourist season. If you don’t mind standing on a crowded bus, it’s cheap and convenient.

After our return, Orchid, Sally and Vanilla went to eat Chinese food, and we Americans went to a trendy little eatery near the hotel, called Planet Cherry, where they like K-pop stars (Korean pop stars) a lot. The place is packed with CD covers, key chains, concert ticket stubs and posters, and the TV shows K-pop music videos all day. The food was really good, even if you don’t know one Korean singer from another.

Monday was our departure day. Vanilla, Sally and I had some chores to do in the morning, so we pried ourselves out of bed by 7:00 to return our fare cards (and get our deposits back), find a cheap breakfast, and find some Peking duck to take back with us. (Five times to Beijing, and I still hadn’t tasted Peking duck!)

Here’s one indication I’ve been in China a while. I actually preferred a Chinese breakfast to the Western-style offered at the hotel. For 30 yuan at the hotel, you could get waffles, eggs and so on, or for 4 yuan, you could get steamed buns (baozi), porridge or beef noodles at one of the shops nearby. Vanilla and Sally of course preferred Chinese style, both for the price and the taste, so in the mornings I usually accompanied them. Our breakfast Monday morning was from a street vendor, who served up a better tasting version of a sausage-and-egg biscuit than the KFC and McDonalds places nearby.

By the way, Peking duck costs 22 yuan ($3, roughly) at a Beijing specialty food store called Daoxiangcun — just in case you get the chance to shop there. (Hat tip to Orchid.)

Our flight to Changde was uneventful. We were met at the airport by Mr Qin, who took the newcomers and Vanilla back to JiDa in time for a huge dinner at the school hotel. Sally and I stayed behind to tour Changde a little before we both headed home. My duties as a tour guide were now over, and I gratefully put myself in the capable hands of my hostess for the next day.

All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy?
Sept. 1, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am one happy camper tonight, because I discovered how to circumvent China’s blocking of Picasaweb. The solution was right there in front of me, if I had bothered to look.

In their ineffable wisdom, the wonks at Google allow you to upload photos to Picasaweb via email. All you need to do is go to Picasaweb’s settings and set up a secret email addy. Then you can emails to that address with photos as attachments. The subject line is the name of an existing album.


Because China is blocking Picasaweb and Blogger, both Google services, I have had a hell of time uploading to my Picasaweb albums. For a while, I could upload using Picasa 3, the desktop application, then mysteriously uploads would constantly fail. Either the uploads would stall, or I would get the message, “This account is not enabled for web albums.” First, I suspected a bug in Picasaweb (like THAT would ever happen!), but it appears some service or port is being blocked by the Great Firewall of China.

I can use the latest version of Ultrasurf (v.9.98) to climb the Great Firewall, and access Picasaweb to edit photos and such, but uploads still fail, either from Picasa 3 or on the website itself. Timeout problems, or connection problems because of the proxy service.

So, as they say, RTFM. I went to the help pages, and lo! You can email your pix to Picasaweb. Duh. I should guessed that.

It’s pretty slow, since I can only send 20 MB at a time (about 10 pix), but at least I can do it. I paid for 80 GB of storage space at Picasaweb, and I’ve barely scratched it.

I’m in the last few days of my summer break. We returned from Beijing on the 23rd. Vanilla and the Americans went to Jishou, while Sally and I stayed in Changde to see the sights. As it turns out, since Sally is from a neighboring town, Hanshou, she is not very familiar with Changde at all. Normally, she travels from the bus station to the train station when traveling between JiDa and home. So, she asked a classmate of hers (whom she hadn’t seen in five years) to be our tour guide.

I wanted to the see Poetry Wall, which people say is quite a marvel, but it was undergoing renovation at the time. We visited Binhu Park and Liuye Lake, though. Both were quite nice, even in the light rain.

View Larger Map

Since returning to JiDa, I’ve helped the American family get settled — their daughter started school today as the only foreign student in the entire school — and prepared for classes, which start Monday. Another task is to proofread a friend’s master’s thesis by Saturday. It’s 14,000 words and I’m about halfway through. She’s a 2009 graduate from our college, now at the University of Durham in the UK.

So, my last week of vacation is pretty filled up with work. Nothing new there.

And we’re off!
Sept. 17, 2010

[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos, where it was just rescued from diary oblivion.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Classes have been in session for two weeks now. It’s taken me a while to build a head of steam for blogging. Been a little busy, as you will see.

As was the case last year, I am teaching 16 classes a week (that’s eight groups of students for 100 minutes at a go), but with some changes in subjects and students. This term, I am teaching oral English to the freshman and sophomore undergraduates majoring in Business English, and Western Culture and Civilization to the juniors in Business English.

None of the juniors have oral English classes anymore, which befuddles me, but apparently It’s the Way Things Are Done Here™, according to fellow foreign teachers at other schools. The Business English students have a course in public speaking, but the English education majors — who will presumably be teaching English — have no more English language classes. More about that later.

Previously, my writing classes were the biggest consumer of my prep time, what with reading essays and diaries and plotting more ways to get my students to write English. This term, it’s the Civ class that takes the prize.

The last time I learned anything about ancient Greece and Rome was maybe (if I can remember correctly) in junior high school, which was, oh, about 40 years ago. And for some reason, I’ve always been more interested in medieval history than ancient history, so I’ve got some pretty huge gaps in my cultural background knowledge. (Confession: I tried to read both the Iliad and the Odyssey, but never got through them. And don’t even ask me about The Republic or The Aeneid. Not yet anyway.)

Once we reach the Middle Ages, I’ll feel a little more secure, but there is still a lot of history I need to review.

Adding to my workload is the rather inadequate text we are using, which covers 3,000 years of Western culture in about 380 pages. There are no pictures, no maps, no diagrams — just lots and lots of words, names and dates. Most of the students have never learned anything about Western history, so this book is like Greek to them. (Ahem.) Despite being written by Chinese authors in English, the reading level is miles above their current reading comp skills, so I need to supplement it big time.

It’s not a bad text, really. To its credit, it spends a chapter each on Judaism and Christianity, and tries to summarize the OT and the NT. (The summaries are not that cogent — for some bizarre reason it reprints most of Revelation verbatim — so I have to be a Biblical scholar now, too. Oy vay.) But there is one major omission. In discussing the Enlightenment, the text takes pains to highlight the French Revolution as the most important consequence of the Enlightenment, but says nothing about the American Revolution which preceded (and inspired) it.

Oh, and for you history teachers, there is a noticeable Marxist slant to its historical analysis. The Renaissance and Reformation was the first time the bourgeousie were able to fight against the “feudalistic autocracy and theological yoke” of the aristocracy and the Church, for example.

I’m not bothered so much by the slant, as by the dearth of visually appealing graphics. So, my lectures by necessity need to be illustrated, requiring me to spend hours finding images on the ‘Net when I’m not poring over ancient Greek and Roman lit and philosophy. It’s like I’m back in school again.

My first lecture was about ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Phoenicia, which the text mentions in passing, but supplies no details about. Next up is “Greek Myth and the Poet Homer.” That’s in the can now, and I am now boning up on Greek politics and philosophy. Plato’s Republic, here I come!

The junior classes have gained nine new students each since last term, all graduates of three-year programs who have earned the chance to become candidates for the bachelor degree. One is a student I taught my first term at JiDa; the others have come from other unis. They will spend two years at JiDa.

Meanwhile, the freshmen have arrived on campus, and are already in their green camos for military training. Our college will either have 120 new students, or 160. We’re still not clear about the numbers, as some 40 of the three-year students just didn’t show up.

Maybe I’ve done this before, but here’s a primer on the Chinese university system, at least as it applies to me here.

First of all, every high school student takes the gaokao (college entrance exam) in June of their final year. They are stratified by the results. The top scorers can go to the premier unis in China, like Beijing University or Fudan U in Shanghai, and lower scorers to lower-ranked schools. In addition, they may qualify to be undergraduates — bachelor-degree candidates who attend school for four years — or what we in the States would term junior-college candidates, who have a three-year course of study, ending in a certificate of completion.

But students can sit for the gaokao again, so we think those missing 40 are waiting for a year to see if they improve their scores and become four-year candidates. It will save them money in the long run. You see, once they arrive at college, the three-year students study on their own to take self-study exams. If their scores are high enough, they can qualify to be bachelor-degree students, finishing their college careers in five years instead of four. There are no guarantees they can pass those exams, so they have to weigh the advantages (and costs) of improving their gaokao score and getting a bachelor degree in four years or enrolling as three-year students, taking self-study exams, and getting a degree in five years.

Now, about those oral English classes. As I mentioned above, none of our juniors are taking English language classes, but they are learning Japanese as their second foreign language. The English ed students on the three-year plan have only 10 hours of class, including teaching methods and English-literature classes. I was dismayed to learn that, for one thing, I would not be teaching them again, and for another, these future teachers were not expected to take any more English language classes. Needless to say, this runs completely contrary to the American curriculum for language teachers-in-training.

Well, my former students have lots of time on their hands, and I could fit two more teaching hours into my load without exceeding my contractual limit of 18 in a week, so I offered to teach them oral English for another term. The answer from my college leaders was a very polite, but very firm, no.

Now I suspect one reason was we don’t have enough classrooms yet to schedule anymore classes, but the other is the educational culture of China. Here, teaching to the test is the head of the educational dragon.

Among the battery of standardized tests these students have to take are the CET-4 and CET-6 English exams, which they take during their first two years. It seems the sole purpose of their English language classes is to give them enough background to pass the tests. If they don’t, it’s their problem, not the college’s. After their second year, there is just no language instruction offered, or even expected.

In other words, the overriding (but unspoken) duty of the university is not to educate students deeply in their chosen major, but to enable them to pass their exams. We are not talking about a liberal arts education here.

Adding to this mentality is the prejudice against the three-year students, who in the eyes of officialdom are not “worthy” of the same opportunities offered the four-year kids. Thus, the junior undergrads have classes with foreign teachers, while the three-year certificate candidates have none. (There are other examples of such discrimination, but I will skip them as they not germane to this post.)

This whole situation just burns me up, but there is not much I can do about it. It’s the Chinese university way, and as a “foreign expert” I have next to zero influence on educational policy, even within my own college.

Fellow foreign teachers elsewhere have advised me to hold English corners for those students, which I started this week. Quite a few students are eager to improve their spoken English, so I’m hoping the turnout will increase as the weeks go by. Right now, they’re too focused on preparing for … that’s right .. standardized tests this weekend.

It’s No Child Left Behind run amok.

Censorship, Chinese style
Oct. 8, 2010

[UPDATES 10/11/10: Liu’s wife visited him in prison yesterday, and was placed under house arrest upon leaving. Her ties to the outside world have been severed and she can only leave her home in a police car. Meanwhile, authorities have arrested people celebrating Liu’s award. China-based bloggers, like Han Han, have also had their sites censored. (Han Han’s post about Liu for 10/8/10 is now blank.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — By now, you have probably heard that Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. But if you were in China, you would hardly know it.

Government censors blacked out CNN cable TV reports, like the one below. The China Daily, the nation’s English-language, government-backed newspaper and website, had nothing about the award this evening.

Searching for his name in Chinese characters (刘晓波) using Google or Yahoo just gave me a generic “server not found” message. However, if I used the pinyin version of his name, I had no problem finding and reading news reports about him. I assume that breech will be closed soon, since searching for his name on Wikipedia gave me a similar “server not found” message.

Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence in Liaoning province, after he was convicted in 2009 of subversion of state power. He was an advisor to student protesters in the 1989 Tian’anmen Square demonstrations, and a co-author of Charter 08, which calls for more democracy in China. (See the link under Pages at left on this blog, if you want to read the Charter.)

Needless to say, giving the prize to Liu did not please the Chinese government one iota, since it calls attention to Liu’s imprisonment and China’s less-than-stellar track record on human rights. Despite its “opening up” in the 1970s to the outside, the Communist Party of China (CPC) prefers to keep the population in the dark about dissidents like Liu. The CPC is all about a “harmonious society” here. As Chinese media observers have noted, news reports in China rarely mention anything suggesting the CPC makes any errors, or that anyone might object to official CPC actions.

Everything’s just peachy here, you know.

English speakers have an advantage over most Chinese. So far, access to major international news sites like BBC and CNN is not blocked. Since most Chinese still don’t know English very well, however, they are unlikely to go poking around The New York Times for news of China.

And those that seek information on Chinese websites will either find nothing, or the site blocked.

China is not alone in this regard, of course. Iran has a tight grip on its media and Internet pipelines, as well. And the United Arab Emirates threatened to ban Research in Motion’s Blackberry services entirely if RiM didn’t allow UAE internal security agencies access to customer’s communications.

And, lest you think the USA is above all this snooping, the Obama administration wants telecommunications and Internet providers to provide government security agencies “backdoor” access to check on what customers are talking, texting or typing about.

I am not suggesting that the US government will lock people like China has Liu, but at the same time, there is no compelling reason to let government agents have easier access to our private communications than what they already have. And there is no compelling reason to control how and why Internet users access the ‘Net. (I am speaking out Net Neutrality here, folks.)

Video ad for a Chinese T-shirt company
Oct. 21, 2010

[Don’t worry, there are subtitles. It’s a long commercial for Beijing-based Plastered T-shirts. You can see some scenes of hutong life in it.

Western Culture test #1: Ancient Greece
Oct. 22, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — This test is what I inflicted on my Western Culture students this morning. How well can you do on it? No looking at your textbooks, cell phones, or the Internet.

Western Culture and Civilization
Student ID ____________________________
2008 G1 and G2
First test, Ancient Greece, 22 October 2010

1. Athens

2. Sparta

3. Troy

4. Achilles

5. Odysseus

6. Aristotle

7. Plato

8. Eratosthenes

9. Sophocles

10. Aristophanes

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (Use your own paper for these, please):
11. Ancient Greece fostered the first known republic and the first known democracy in the world. Where were these political experiments, exactly? Give a brief description of how each system of government was organized.

12. Socrates was one of the earliest and most influential of the ancient philosophers. What were his core beliefs?

13. Give two examples of the Greeks’ contributions to mathematics and science. Discuss each one briefly.

14. What was the basic story or theme of Homer’s Iliad? Of Homer’s Odyssey?

15. Why is the civilization and culture of the ancient Greeks so important to the West?

BONUS POINTS: Match the Greek god or goddess to his or her attributes.(10 points maximum)

1 _____ Ares A The first woman
2______ Aphrodite B Creator of the first man, bringer of fire
3______ Zeus C The god of war
4 _____ Hades D The goddess of the harvest
5 _____ Poseidon E The messenger god
6 _____ Herakles (Hercules) F The king of the gods

7 _____ Hermes G The king of the sea
8 _____ Prometheus H The goddess of love and beauty (and desire)
9 _____ Pandora I The king of the underworld

10 ____ Demeter (Ceres) J A son of Zeus, and a great hero

The annual sports meeting
Oct. 30, 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Imagine the Beijing Olympics … on a much smaller scale. This is our college’s opening performance. Look for me among the faculty, behind the teachers in the long magenta (fuschia?) dresses.Cost-of-living example #1
Fri, 19 Nov 2010

JISHOU, HUNAN — Considering my unimpressive salary (at least in US dollars), it’s really easy for me to live comfortably here. No joke.

To put things in context, here are few sample prices for common food items.

  • A (half) loaf of bread: ¥5.00 = 75¢
  • A 600 ml bottle of Pepsi: 37¢
  • A package of cookies: 55¢
  • Six packets of instant coffee: $2.25 (imported from Taiwan)
  • An 18.9 liter (5-gallon) bottle of drinking water, including delivery: 88¢
  • 1.25 liter (42 fl. oz.) bottle of Tropicana fruit juice: 55¢
  • A dozen eggs: $1.70
  • 200-g (7-ounce) package of bacon: $1.89
  • A meal at the university dining hall: 44 to 75¢
  • A nice lunch at a casual restaurant: $1.50 to $3.00 (per person) (Note: KFC costs about $4 – $5/person)
  • I recently bought a nice black double-breasted fall-weather coat at a local men’s store, where the prices are admittedly on the expensive side. It cost me ¥600, or about $88. In the USA, I’d reckon it would cost at least twice that. The sport shoes I bought a year ago were about $44, and are still in great shape. This week, I bought a friend a pair of knee-length leather boots for $38 as a birthday present. Both items in the USA would be at least double that. (And probably also made in China.)

    My digital cable box with a year’s service was around $37. Of course, all I get is Chinese TV, so it’s not really comparable to cable in the US, but still way cheaper.

    The university pays for my electricity and gives me a free apartment. It’s not sumptuous, but it’s comfortable fro one person. So, two of the biggest cash outlays are not my problem. I also get my round trip airfare to the USA covered once a year, that’s worth about $1100 to $1800.

    My monthly income? In US dollars, it’s $630, or ¥4280. Taxes claim 10% of that. As I said, that’s a pittance for a worker in the USA, but here it’s a princely salary.

    So, all things considered, I’m in pretty good shape. I took a huge pay cut, but really, who cares?

    A foreigner visitor’s perspective of Kentucky
    Nov. 26, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — I have to confess, finding a travel article in a Hong Kong newspaper about Kentucky was a little weird. Most foreign visitors to the US hit the coasts, not the Great Midwest, much as tourists to China visit Tibet, Shanghai and Beijing, and skip everything in between.

    For some reason, I always seem to end up living in the in-between parts, no matter where I live.

    Anyway, the gist of the article in the South China Morning Post is that Kentucky is worth visiting to see the “real” America, whatever that means. The writer visited Bardstown, Lexington, Louisville, Mammoth Cave and parts in-between in a driving tour of the Bluegrass State.

    Aside from using the dreaded pejorative, “hillbillies,” writer Tim Bryan pretty much nailed why Kentucky is such a good place to visit, or live, for that matter. He even mentions Ale-8-One. Damn. Now I miss the stuff.

    Give it a read, especially if you’re from Kentuckiana. It’s refreshing to see how strangers view the Commonwealth.

    Second infliction of pain and suffering – culture test #2
    Nov. 27, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — We finished the unit on the ancient Romans with a test Friday. I made four versions, to minimize copying from neighbors (more about that some other time). Here’s one for you to test your knowledge of Western Culture.

    FALL 2010
    TEST #2: The Romans (25 points)

    IDENTIFICATIONS. Use a few words or a sentence to identify the following people, places or things. Be specific to get full credit! (1 point each)
    1. Rome
    2. Italy
    3. Gaul
    4. Julius Caesar
    5. Octavian (Augustus Caesar)
    6. Constantine I
    7. Constantinople
    8. The Senate
    9. plebeians
    10. patricians

    DISCUSSION. Answer the following with at least two or three sentences. Some questions may require more explanation. (3 points each) (Use the other side of the paper if needed.)
    11. What were the three main periods of Roman history? Please give approximate dates for each period.

    12. What was the basic structure of the government of the Roman Republic? How was governmental power shared by those in control of the Republic?

    13. The Romans “copied” some aspects of Greek culture. Name three Greek creations that the Romans basically imitated (and preserved).

    14. The Romans were also innovators – they created new things for later civilizations in Europe to copy. Name three innovations of the Romans.

    15. The Romans’ longest lasting and most far reaching contribution to the world was their language, Latin. How has Latin affected society since the end of the Roman Empire?

    Surviving the year’s first English speaking contest
    Dec. 4, 2010

    [Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.]

    JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s getting to be speechifying season here again, and my first judging gig this year was a recitation contest for non-English majors.

    The 29 contestants’ selections were a compendium of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania that could have come from one of those never-ending paperbacks full of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania. In fact, that’s where some of them came from. I think it’s an unwritten rule here that English recitation material has to be really sappy and sentimental.

    Having nothing better to do than marking about 100 tests (no joke), I spent a couple of hours one night checking the provenance of all these uplifting pieces about love, mom, friendship, self-worth, growing old, love, life’s setbacks, and mom.

    Here’s a rundown of the afternoon’s selections, to give you an idea of what I mean.

    Taking the prize for the oldest selection is “My luve is like a red, red rose,” from 1794, attributed to Robert Burns. He collected and preserved old songs and poems in Scots, like this one, for posterity. That’s how we still have “Auld Lang Syne.”

    It’s short, so here’s the poem in its entirety. Save it for Valentine’s Day, boys.

    My Luve is Like a Red, Red Rose
    Robert Burns 1794, from traditional sources

    O, my luve is like a red, red rose,
    That’s newly sprung in June:
    O, my luve is like the melodie,
    That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

    As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
    So deep in luve am I
    And I will luve thee still, my dear,
    Till a’ the seas gang dry.

    Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
    And the rocks melt wi’ the sun!
    And I will luve thee still, my dear,
    While the sands o’ life shall run.

    And fare thee weel, my only luve,
    And fare thee weel a while!
    And I will come again, my luve
    Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

    (“Gang” means “go.” “Weel” means “well” and no, it is not a typo.)

    And for your listening pleasure, here is a real Scots person singing the song, Margaret Donaldson.

    For her part, the student reciting the poem did a pretty good job, considering the language is not standard English. She even said “gang” right!

    There were other song lyrics, too, though I daresay not as simple and elegant as ol’ Robbie’s. We heard “Hero,” a 1993 hit by Mariah Carey and Walter Afanasieff, “Bring It All Back,” the debut single by the ever-uplifting S Club 7, and a less than uplifting “song” incorrectly titled, “Lake of Autumn.”

    Two students recited that last one. Once was enough. It’s a real downer about lovers parting by a lake, sung by the sultry Viktor Lazlo, at right.

    Viktor Lazlo

    Viktor Lazlo

    (Viktor, as I hope you can tell, is not a guy, but a French-Belgian singer born Sonia Dronier. The students recited a spoken introduction to her 1986 song, “Stories.” Here’s a video of her performing it.

    And here’s some of the spoken part, which is now apparently on the English-speech-contest circuit here.

    I still don’t think I am gonna make it through another love story
    You took it all away from me
    And there I stand, I knew I was gonna be the …..
    The one left behind.
    But still I’m watching the lake vaguely conscious
    And I know—My life is ending.

    Hearing that just once was one time too many. I felt like I needed an S Club 7 fix. But she’s a great singer, who I discovered simply by tracking down this totally depressing song. Here’s her MySpace page

    Those are all the songs. Now, for the essays. Bertrand Russell’s essay, “What I Have Lived for,” is a popular, if rarely recited selection. Also represented — twice — was an excerpt from the conclusion of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. It begins, “However mean your life is, meet and live it, do not shun it and call it hard names.”

    Less familiar was an essay called, “Just for today.” I found it on the countless uplifting websites out there in cyberspace, who, like most of these students, never, never, never give attribution to the stuff they reprint. It took some effort to track down its actual author, Sybil Partridge, who penned it in 1916. Seems it ended up in a Dale Carnegie book back then, too.

    Robert Le Fulghum

    Robert Lee Fulghum, fellow white beard

    Robert Lee Fulghum of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1988) fame was represented as well. One student recited, “Dancing all the dances as long as I can,” about the writer’s love of the tango despite his advancing years. I’m including a photo of Fulghum just because of his beard. Solidarity, brother!

    Less familiar a name to me was Xu Zhimo (1897-1931), a Chinese who went to university in the USA and the UK. His poem, “Goodbye, Cambridge Again,” is very popular in China. Here’s a link to an English translation of it.

    Xu, incidentally, died young in a plane crash. If he’d been born a little later in history, he probably would have been a rock musician.

    OK, let’s talk about mom. There were no less than five recitations about mothers. One was a rather jarring portmanteau that began with the lyrics from a 1915 Tin Pan Alley song, “M-O-T-H-E-R, a Word That Means the World to Me,” and ended with a selection from Kahlil Gibran’s “The Broken Wings,” from 1912. Weird and kitschy.

    (Useless factoid: The guy who co-wrote “M-O-T-H-E-R” also wrote “I Scream You Scream We All Scream for Ice Cream.” His name was Howard Johnson, but he’s not the Johnson of hotel/restaurant fame. This is why God created Wikipedia, people.)

    Other paens to motherhood were “Prayer for My Mother” from Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul (1997), “The Rough Hands,” from A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul (1998), “Every Woman is Beautiful,” by a contemporary American children’s book author, Mary Lynn Plaisance, and “Thank You, Mom,” by James Ruka, another contemporary writer who has also written for those tiresome Chicken Soup books.

    [All these essays, copyrighted or not, are all available on the Internet in one way or another. No books were bought to produce this contest.]

    Three students chose an old warhorse (literally) I’ve heard over and again for the last two years, entitled “Youth.” It’s by Samuel Ullman (1840-1924), and talks about your aerial picking up wireless “waves of optimism.” General Douglas MacArthur apparently had a framed copy hanging on his wall.

    Another frequent English speaking contest warhorse is, “A forever friend,” which I found is all over the Internet and not just in China. I couldn’t find its author, but I did find two people who claimed to be its author.

    Here’s another puzzler, which will give you an idea of how people learn butcher English in China. It ends with a quote by J.G. Holland, but the rest came from somewhere else. It begins:

    “Consider … you. In all the time before now and in time to come, there has never been and will never be anyone just like you. You are unique in the entire history and future of the universe. Wow! Stop and think about that. You are better than one in a million, or a billion, or a gazillion … You are the only one like you in a sea of infinity! …”

    OK, I get the idea, already. I am unique. Like I didn’t know that. Gosh!

    I could not find the source of this sad excuse for an essay. It’s so poorly written that I suspect the author prefers to remain anonymous. That said, please tell me it is not in some Chicken Soup for teenagers book. My regard for those books would plummet even further.

    There are three others that will also have to remain “author unknown,” because I don’t have the requisite hours of time to track down their sources. One is about getting a “thorough understanding of oneself” and another pushes confidence, which is “a key to survive in this world. It is the only key tool to win the rat race in every walk of life.” Either could have come from an American self-help book. Or is the appropriate description, “self-actualization?”

    This one is sort of a fable. A bad one. “One day, God asked me to take a snail for a walk,” it begins. So he takes the snail for a walk, gets mad at the snail for being too slow, and kicks it. (Snail cruelty!) Takes it back home. The next day, God tells him, take the snail out for a stroll again. This time, Luke Snailwalker feels bad because the snail is cowering in fear of him, so he takes his time. Along the way, he stops (the snail keeps on going — wisely, I’d say) and looks up to marvel at the stars in the sky. In the daytime. Was he walking this snail during a solar eclipse? Or maybe he sampled some mushrooms on the way?

    I’ll close with two poems that aren’t really poems. One is a collection of aphorisms that someone in the dim past downloaded from a quotations website, and now everyone thinks it’s a poem. The other is a group effort by some very bored Taiwanese medical students, misattributed to the Bengali poet Rabindrinath Tagore.

    The first “poem” included quotes from Dr. Seuss, Sir Thomas Browne, Roy Croft (who may have just translated a German poem by Erich Fried — some people really have their underwear in knots about this question), Christina Phan, a contemporary poet from San Jose, California, and many anonymous sources. Mostly the quotes are about love, lost loves, friendships and such. Nothing about lives ending by lakes, thank the stars, though Dr. Seuss once wrote about Luke Luck, who likes licking lakes.

    The second is another fave for English speaking contests. I’ve heard it countless times these two years, and at least one time, the transcript identified it as a poem by Tagore. Well, it’s nowhere close. Here’s the short version of its origination.

    According to one fellow, a Taiwan author, Amy Cheung, wrote the first two lines — in Chinese. Some medical students in Taiwan then made it a group project to finish the poem, still in Chinese. Then someone translated it into English, and it got posted to many, many English websites catering to Chinese English learners. Someone said it was by Tagore, and it became an Internet meme. Poor Tagore.

    Here is one clumsy translation of the Chinese original, which I don’t think was such hot stuff in the first place:

    The furthest distance in the world
        Is not between life and death
        But when I stand in front of you
        Yet you don’t know that
        I love you  

       The furthest distance in the world
        Is not when I stand in font of you
        Yet you can’t see my love
        But when undoubtedly knowing the love from both
        Yet cannot
        Be together  

       The furthest distance in the world
        Is not being apart while being in love
        But when plainly cannot resist the yearning
        Yet pretending
        You have never been in my heart

       The furthest distance in the world
        Is not plainly cannot resist the yearning
    But using one’s indifferent heart
       To dig an uncrossable river
        For the one who loves you

    And here’s an alternative version, which I submit as proof that one cannot adequately translate poetry using a machine translator.

    The remotest distance is not in the world ;
    Raw and dead but;
    I stand in front of you;
    But you do not know that I love you
    The remotest distance is not in the world ;
    I stand in front of you;
    You know but I love you but;
    Know obviously that in love each other;
    But can’t be together
    The remotest distance is not in the world ;
    Know obviously that in love each other;
    Can’t together but;
    It is unable to block and resist this burst to miss obviously ;
    But must pretend not to place you on in the heart at all on purpose
    The remotest distance is not in the world ;
    It is unable to keep out this burst to miss obviously ;
    It but must pretend on purpose it place on in the heart at all you but;
    Use one’s own cold and detached heart;
    Have dug a piece of irrigation canals and ditches that can’t be crossed over to the person who loves you !!

    Yeah. Definitely not Tagore.

    Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet, folks. Just in case you didn’t know already.

    Nobel ceremony is Friday – guess who won’t be there
    Dec. 5, 2010

    [Updated December 7.]

    JISHOU, HUNAN — The recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu XiaoBo of China, is still in prison serving out an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion.” His wife is confined — unwillingly — to her Beijing home. Liu’s brothers are under close observation. A noted Chinese artist, Ai WeiWei, has been prevented from leaving China.

    Get the picture?

    Liu XiaoBo

    Liu XiaoBo

    Liu’s “crime,” according to Beijing, is his involvement in writing Charter ’08. The document, signed by thousands of Chinese, calls for a multi-party political system and guarantees of human rights already included in the Chinese constitution.

    That the Nobel committee selected Liu for the Peace Prize has China’s party leaders very pissed off, since it calls attention to his status as a political prisoner. Despite calls from international leaders to release him, Beijing continues to keep him in prison, and his family members in China.

    It means that prize itself will not be handed out to anyone. From the BBC:

    It also appears likely that the prize itself will not be handed out during the ceremony because no-one from Liu Xiaobo’s family has said they can attend, the Nobel committee secretary says.

    The $1.4m (£900,000) award can be collected only by the recipient or close family members.

    Last month, China sent diplomatic communications to many European nations, advising them there would be “consequences” if they attended the ceremony on Friday. Again, according to the BBC, only six nations so far have indicated they will boycott the ceremony: China, Russia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Cuba and Morocco.

    [UPDATE: According to the BBC, 44 countries have indicated their representatives will attend, while 19 (China Russia, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Serbia, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco ) have said they will not, for various reasons.]

    One wonders what will really happen when the 36 44 countries who will attend send their ambassadors. One possibility is NOT Liu being freed anytime soon.

    Chinese delicacies: guiyuan 桂圆 and zaozi 枣子
    Dec. 7, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile: Chinese fruits.

    We have the kind of fruits we’re used to in the USA — apples, oranges (locally grown, and in season now -yum!), bananas, watermelons — but also some that you just can’t find in the States. Here are two examples.

    A bowl of guiyuan

    A bowl of guiyuan

    Guiyuan 桂圆 are also called “longan fruit.” They’re about the size of a cherry, and like cherries, have a single pit in the middle. Another name for them is “dragon eyes,” because of the dark pit inside the eyeball-sized fruit.

    A guiyuan (dragoneye) unpeeled

    A guiyuan (dragoneye) unpeeled

    To eat them, you peel off the skin, which is dry and easy to remove with your thumbnail. Inside is a translucent, sweet flesh, and inside that is the pit. The taste is a little hard to describe. It’s not as cloying as a cherry, but more like a white grape with a cleaner, more refreshing taste. Like eating a real sorbet without tons of added sugar (or corn syrup). They’re high in vitamin C, B1 and B2, calcium and phosphorus. They’re in season now, so I have a bowl of them sitting on my coffee table.

    Zaozi -- jujubes

    Zaozi — jujubes

    Another cherry-sized “fruit” is zaozi 枣子, which is also known as the jujube. It has no connection with the familiar candy by the same name. According to Wikipedia, jujubes are drupes, like peaches or cherries. Unlike guiyuan, you don’t have to peel zaozi. You eat them like teeny tiny apples.

    The taste is apple-like, but not as sweet and a little astringent. In fact, some can be a little on the tart side. The inner flesh is white, like an apple’s, and there is one small seed in the middle. Zaozi have a lot of vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and manganese. They’re good, but I prefer the guiyuan.

    Guiyuan don’t grow well here in Hunan, since they don’t like frost much. Mine came from Guangdong to the south. The zaozi are locally grown, and of course are very fresh.

    Speaking of fresh, a couple of weekends ago, I went orange picking at an orchard within walking distance of campus. The low today was 50 degrees F. Jealous yet?

    Chinese netizens evade censorship about Nobel winner Liu XiaoBo
    Dec. 11, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese dissident Liu XiaoBo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Friday, in absentia since he is still serving an 11-year prison sentence in China.

    The Chinese government was far from happy with the international attention paid Liu, who co-authored Charter ’08, a manifesto for democratic reforms in the Middle Kingdom. Foreign TV news coverage was blacked out, major news sites like the BBC and CNN were blocked, and any mentions of the award on domestic sites were rapidly deleted by the government’s army of censors.

    But netizens here are used to government censorship, and they have developed their own sly ways of getting their points across without being overt. One example is the “grass mud horse,” a mythical llama-like creature whose name in Chinese sounds much like telling someone to have sex with his mother. (Cuss words are usually censored in the media here. Well, the Chinese ones, anyway.) reports that admirers of Liu have been posting tributes on Twitter to other people surnamed Liu. The tributes have a double meaning — praise of Liu XiaoBo and also the other figure sharing his family name. here are some examples. Their names are linked to Wikipedia articles about them.

    From @pufei (蒲飞):

    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He has won many awards from overseas organizations. His work is popular at home and abroad. His honest face inspires a feeling of warmth. He is quite concerned with the situation of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. His name is Lau Ching-wan (刘青云)

    From @VicCh:
    Essay: The person I admire most — “The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He has won major international prizes, and his deeds have inspired a fighting spirit in his countrymen. Although for a time he vanished from our sight, I believe his spirit will live on….” The teacher moves to call the police. The next line: “His name is Liu Xiang (刘翔).”

    From @doubleaf (陈双叶) via @songshinan (宋石男):
    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He led students campaigns, published books, and won international prizes. Later he was unjustly accused and spent many years in prison. But I believe that all of this is but the test of history, because he said that fortunately, history is written by the people. His name is Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇).

    From @wentommy (文涛):
    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. Despite a prison term, this wonderful individual has won all kinds of international awards, and is an idol to many people. Her name is Liu Xiaoqing (刘晓庆).

    From @yueyexiake (月夜侠客):
    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He has won world-class prizes. His skill with his hands shocked the world, and he must admit: I have no enemies. Sometimes he’ll stammer when talking to reporters, and for a time he vanished from view. The entire world frequently remembers his name, the country’s bridge to the future. His name is Liu Guoliang (刘国梁).

    From @wentommy (文涛):
    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He enjoys immense prestige among the common people, but is a thorn in the side of the powerful. He is known for his humanity and kindness, and even when insulted he endures it with tolerance. In times of distress he would give up his family before his morals, and faces danger willingly. But some have criticized him for fake humanity and false righteousness. His name is Liu….Xuande (刘玄德).

    From @nuosong (罗晓松):
    The person I most admire has the surname Liu. He has a doctorate, has published books, and has been a defendant. He has won major prizes from many western nations, as well as awards from overseas organizations in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He is an idol to many people in China, and is the pride of the Chinese people. His name is Andy Lau (刘德华)!

    Longtime China observers have noted that Beijing has changed its tactics. In the past, the censors would have taken pains to block most international news sites. They didn’t this time. While the BBC and CNN main sites were inaccessible, I was able to access CNN-Mexico, The Guardian in the UK and several others. Google News was also available throughout most of the day.

    Rather than try the impossible task of blocking all access to the outside world, the government smeared Liu’s reputation and made sure that the average citizen knew nothing about why Liu was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize committee. In addition, officials accused the Nobel committee and the West of trying to meddle with internal Chinese affairs.

    No one was allowed to attend the award ceremony in Oslo to accept the prize. Instead, an empty chair “accepted” the award. The last time that happened was during the time Adolph Hitler controlled Germany.

    The tweets about people surnamed Liu are amusing in some ways, but they speak volumes about how tightly the government controls information here. Think about that whenever some politico in the USA starts yakking about monitoring Internet and cellphone communications for reasons of “national security.” That’s what they say here.

    More musical goodies: the Chinese “bunny hop”
    Dec. 18, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — I just came from the English Club Christmas party, where we danced a version of the “Bunny Hop” to a catchy tune I haven’t heard anywhere else but in China.

    So, in keeping with my recent tradition of scouring the Internet for perfectly useless trivia, I went googling, yahoo-ing and baidu-ing to learn something about it. Since it seems to be something akin to an oral tradition, getting anything definite about it was a real challenge.

    In China, the song is called “Rabbit Dance 兔子舞,” since the basic steps are just like the American “Bunny Hop” dance. [Ray Anthony’s band did a 45 of this in the mid-1950s; the B side was the “Hokey Pokey.” So now you know.]

    But if you pay attention to the lyrics to “Rabbit Dance,” the song we hear in China says nothing about rabbits or bunnies. The animal in question is … penguins. Here’s the lyrics. If I’m violating copyright, please excuse me. Tracking down the performers was hard enough.

    left left right right go turn around go go go

    left right
    left left right right left left right right go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go

    Jumping grooving dancing everybody
    Rolling moving singing night to day
    Let’s fun fun together
    Let’s play the penguin’s games
    Smacking beating clapping all together
    Rocking bumping screaming all night long
    Let’s go everybody And play again this song

    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go

    Jumping grooving dancing everybody
    Rolling moving singing night to day
    Let’s fun fun together
    Let’s play the penguin’s games
    Smacking beating clapping all together
    Rocking bumping screaming all night long
    Let’s go everybody And play again this song

    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go

    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    Jumping grooving dancing everybody
    Rolling moving singing night to day
    Let’s fun fun together
    Let’s play the penguin’s games
    Smacking beating clapping all together
    Rocking bumping screaming all night long
    Let’s go everybody And play again this song

    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go
    left right left left right right
    left left right right go go go
    left left right right go turn around go go go

    “Turn around” means “jump back.” Smacking and beating sounds a bit violent, too. Are penguins that aggressive? I figured this was some kind of Chinglish, but I was way wrong. According to Baike.Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia, the song is by an Italian group called Gelato. The tune and dance caught on in Taiwan, and from there migrated to the mainland.

    It’s one of those maddingly catchy tunes that keep playing in your head, like an Aqua track, or the theme song to the German cartoon about Schnappi the Little Crocodile. (Schnip, schnap, schnappi … One of my primary school students has it on her cell phone. It’s sung by cute German kids.)

    Back to the song in question. The original title is, more sensibly, “Penguin’s Game” (In Chinese, 《企鹅舞》 ). About Gelato, I found nothing definitive, but I did turn up this music video. Watch.

    Here’s a Youtube video. Youku won’t stream the video outside China. Ironic.

    Dancers here typically don’t do the opening penguin-like movements, just the closing bunny hop part. You can form your own opinions why.

    From a vinyl record website,, I found that Gelato released an EP in 1998 with this song on it in English, Italian, French, Spanish and German. They have at least one another tune, “Fun Fun Dance,” in a more eurohouse/techno style than “Penguin’s Game.” If anyone knows more about Gelato (the group, not the dessert), let me know.

    Here’s some further trivia, which I am not entirely sure about. The music video was filmed in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy, at the Ex Mercato Ittico — the Old Fisherman’s Market. Or at least that what the Youtube notes say.

    I have probably lodged that song in your head now, if you listened to the video. Consider it an antidote to all the cheesy Christmas music playing everywhere in the USA now. Or an early Christmas present from me.

    Ho ho ho!

    The Chinese “bunny hop,” Allegro andante
    Dec. 21, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — I am sure my last post tantalized you so much that you are dying to know more about Gelato, the perpetrators of the “Penguin’s Game” dance. So here are some more details I’ve coaxed out of the Internet.

    Gelato is a man-woman duo from the Remini part of Italy. He’s a DJ (and apparently the guy in the penguin get-up) and she a singer/dancer from one of the clubs there. I’m guessing she’s the tall blonde in the black coat with fake-fur trim. They like eating ice cream, so they named their band Gelato. “Penguin’s Game” was their first single, and they also released an album, Vanilla and Chocolate. I still don’t know their names, though.

    These info-nuggets come from their record label’s website. SAIFAM of Italy makes “small, anonymous but talentful dance projects,” according to one DJ website.

    SAIFAM’s own site says they also produce “fitness music,” the kind of catchy, bouncy music you want to get up and move to. In the immortal words of James Brown, “Get up offa that thing.”

    You can sample tracks by Gelato and other groups at the SAIFAM website, and even buy them if you are so moved. SAIFAM has produced literally hundreds of groups, none of which are recognizable to me. Most of what I listened to are the kind of throwaway dance tunes you could hear at a club — nothing truly awesome, but certainly pleasant enough.

    It seems Gelato hasn’t made any albums recently — their stuff is mostly out of print. But SAIFAM, like the American Diplomat label of the 1950s, recycles their artists’ work to make “new” albums and compilations.

    And fitness music.

    Happy Winter Solstice!
    Dec. 21, 2010

    It’s today, at 6:38 PM EST (6:38 AM Wednesday my time). I hope you got a chance to see the lunar eclipse, because I’m on the wrong side of the world for it.

    Just for the record, this is the shortest period of daylight in the northern hemisphere for the whole year. And the furthest south on the horizon that the sun will rise and set. Now the days will get longer, and the sun will move toward the north.

    Good reason for a celebration! Have some glögg! It’s a traditional holiday punch in Sweden and the other north lands. The really old fashioned way to make it was to leave out the sugar, and instead drink the punch while holding a sugar cube in your teeth. At least, that’s how my grandpa did it. Sugar was expensive way back when.

    I missed the eclipse, but not the solstice moon
    Dec. 22, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — I snapped this from my balcony window this morning around 6:50. It was misty here, as it is usually early in the day, but the moon looked so good hanging just above the mountains to the west that I grabbed my camera and squeezed off a few shots. These were two of the best.

    The full moon at winter solstice

    The full moon at winter solstice

    Technical details: Shot with a Nikon D60 with manual Nikkor 200 mm lens, ASA 400, f5.6, 1/100 sec

    Solstice moon over the hills of Jishou

    Solstice moon over the hills of Jishou

    Technical details: Shot with a Nikon D60 with Nikkor 18-55 AF-S DX lens, ASA 400, f5.6, 1/13 sec (braced against window frame)

    Merry Christmas! Sheng dan kuai le 圣诞快乐!
    Dec. 24, 2010

    Happy Christmas from China!

    Happy Christmas from China!

    ]JISHOU, HUNAN — This photo sums up my Christmas here. Hope you have some fun, too.

    It’s Christmas Eve here. I just got back from a big faculty luncheon. Tonight was the annual Christmas show by our college students, and tomorrow I’m busy with other holiday gatherings. And we may have snow tonight.

    I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Solstice or just a quiet time at home with someone you love, or like, or can at least put up with for a few hours. God Jul!

    Even more silly musical fun
    Dec. 25, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — First, the link. I can’t embed the video. Fuldans à lá Wheaton.

    One of my students, Luo Ye (Ellie), sent one to me. (That’s her in the previous post, with icing all over her face, by the way.) A Swedish band, Fulkultur (Ugly Culture), created the site to market themselves and raise a bit of money. For $1, you can upload a mugshot and personalize the dancing body. For $5, you can get high quality downloads of their music, too.

    The last post of 2010 (maybe)*
    Dec. 31, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been busy these last few days getting ready to close up shop for the Winter Holiday. My last exam — for the Western Civ classes — is next Friday, and I’ll have a week to read those exams and hand in grades before I jet to the USA for a three-week stay.

    My free time, which is not that ample to begin with, has been taken up by giving oral examinations to more than 120 freshmen and sophomores, two at a time for 15 minutes each. This year, I’m using a combination of the Cambridge IELTS and BEC speaking tests: IELTS prompts for two student partners. That way, the students can do the talking while I carefully listen and evaluate pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, rhythm and speed. After two years, I’m finally getting a handle on this oral English stuff.

    I’m calculating those students’ final grades this weekend (I only have a few left to examine), so the remaining Big Tasks are (1) reading the Western Civ students’ last unit test and (2) reading their final exams. I included a short essay on the final, and I gave them the three possible essay questions earlier this month, so I expect to do a lot of reading after Jan. 7.

    Yesterday, we got our teaching assignments for the spring term. I will keep the sophomore oral English students, but had to give up the freshmen to another teacher. I had lobbied hard to teach the British literature survey course to the juniors. It was only the second chance in my teaching career to use my bachelor’s degree in Comparative Lit. The first chance was about 25 years ago, and it fizzled.

    Anyway, I got my wish, and I will teach the same students academic writing, which is another term for “research paper.” We started doing research papers last spring. They had to write 800 to 1,000 words on their hometowns. The results were so-so, but only a few papers were truly abysmal. Next term, I’m planning on giving them something meatier to write, and requiring multiple drafts. These students all have to write a graduation paper of about 4,000 to 5,000 words, so the college hopes I can get them in shape for it.

    While I am a little unhappy at losing the freshmen (I’ve almost learned all their names!), I will have the opportunity to continue teaching the class of 2012. This is the third year I’ve taught them, and I’ve grown really fond of them all. Whether they will be fond of me after I assign them multiple essays next term remains to be seen.

    As I have mentioned before (I think), I am an anomaly among the foreign teachers who have taught here. Most rarely stay more than a year, and move on. While being a tumbleweed is perhaps good for the teacher, it really sucks for the students. Each year, they get a new teacher who has no idea what they learned before, and quite likely has never taught ESL before. So, they often end up learning the same things over and over, making little progress. Several of last year’s graduates have shared their frustrations with me about this pattern. They really want to learn more about English, especially the speaking part, but getting a new teacher each year is inefficient, to say the least.

    Tumbleweeds cannot develop deep and lasting bonds with students as easily. I don’t mean friendship per se, although that can certainly happen. I’m referring to the special relationship that develops between a dedicated teacher and his or her students, a relationship that lies somewhere in the murky waters amidst friendship, mentorship, parent-child, boss-employee, and superior-inferior. A really good teacher connects with the students on a personal or perhaps a visceral level. Maybe he or she cannot bond with every single student, but the teacher can connect with each class, and size it up to find its strengths and weaknesses. I suggest that tumbleweeds, knowing they will be gone by the end of the school year, avoid creating such links because of the inevitable pain of separation when they leave.

    So, transient teachers, unless they are extraordinarily gifted, are not very effective. Knowing the students’ abilities, motivations and learning styles enables a teacher to adapt his or her teaching strategy to their needs. Without some sort of continuity, those kinds of master teaching plans are just not going to happen. The students get short-changed again.

    Yeah, I am talking like a high school teacher here. Old habits are hard to break, especially now that I’m teaching in China. Although I am teaching at a university, it feels like high school. Students move from classroom to classroom as a group. The juniors I have now in Western Civ will be the same students I will have next year for writing and Brit Lit. It’s not the usual professor-student routine of American colleges. So, the teacher-student bonding I’m talking about is appropriate for the occasion.

    Does this mean I have stayed here because of my lofty ideals? Sorry to disappoint, but that has not been my primary motivation. Surely, it’s been in the back of my mind, because teaching is my profession, but mostly I have selfish reasons for staying. I really like it here. That, and I hate moving. Besides, there are no compelling reasons for me to leave. So, why not stay? It’s good for me. It’s good for the students. Everyone wins. Yay!

    As for teaching Brit Lit, I am psyched. I have wanted to teach a lit class for 27 years, but physics teachers seldom get a chance, even ones with Comp Lit degrees. It’ll be a one-term survey course, so we’re not going to able to delve deeply into many works, but many of the students have read Dickens, Austen, the Brontës and Defoe, among others, so we’re at least not starting from scratch. I hoping to have each student pick one work as their own for the term, and write about it (St. Francis sketchbook entries — Wyverns know what I mean!) as they read it. The final assessment will include an essay exploring that work, perhaps including a report to the class somehow. At least, that’s what I’m considering now.

    And, since I am also teaching them academic writing, I might tie the two course objectives together, and have them research the book and author they have chosen as their “baby.” We weren’t able to explore literary analysis in their previous writing classes, so this is a good opportunity. It could be fun. Well, that’s what I’m saying now, anyway. I have 92 juniors to teach formal writing and literature to. It’ll be fun until I have to read what they’ve done, I suppose.

    I’ve had a very good year. “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” I hope the same is true for all of you. Happy New Year! 元旦快乐!(yuan dan kuaile)

    * Unless I feel especially inspired between now (6:41 pm China Time) and midnight.

    ############### International Date Line ################

    And it’s the first post of 2011!
    Dec. 31, 2010

    JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s 00:27 here on January 1, 2011 (1/1/11). Sorry, I missed posting at 00:11 — too busy responding to text and QQ greetings from students and friends.

    On a more serious note, one of my freshmen, Laura (Liu YaLong 刘亚龙), is worried about her dad. He has been ill for some time, and will have a serious operation very soon. She’s already lost her mom. Please hold her and her family in the light. Thanks.

    Go to Chapter 4 –>

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