The China Chronicles, chapter 4 (2011)

— Back to Chapter 3

Snow! (Well, a little …)
Jan. 2, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — We had a white New Year’s here. It started to snow yesterday and continued into today. The temperature is about 30°F. Here’s a photo — not too often you see snow on a palm tree.

Palm tree. Snow. I'm so confused!

Palm tree. Snow. I’m so confused!

I know this is small potatoes compared to what some of you guys in the USA have had. Even so, the inter-city buses are grounded, because of icy roads. Meanwhile, the taxi drivers are on strike, protesting a outrageously high boost in their monthly licensing fees. The only things running are the city buses and the trains.

Sort of like snow in Kentucky.

Curse of the survey lit course
Jan. 6, 2011

Test-taking time
Jan. 7, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I gave my last test of the term today. Now I will spend the next few days reading 90 Western Culture exam papers.

Here’s one to keep you busy: the US Citizenship Test, which applicants must pass in order to get US citizenship. Can you pass it? **No cheating.** The Christian Science Monitor website has the test online.

There are 96 multiple choice questions. The vast majority of applicants pass it on the first go. So, if you’re already a citizen and fail it, sorry, you have to leave the country. Or at least feel very, very ashamed.

They should administer it to politicians as a qualification for office, too. Some seem rather civics-challenged.

Chinese government tears down dissident artist’s studio
Jan. 12, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Beijing artist Ai WeiWei is a vocal critic of China’s Communist Party. While party officials have not arrested him (yet), they seem to take special glee in making his life miserable.

On Tuesday, government officials authorized the demolition of Ai’s newly built artists’ studio in a village outside Shanghai.

The link above will take you the complete article at The New York Times.

Chinese TV fail
Jan. 28, 2011

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — It seems CCTV (China Central Television) wanted some visuals for a report on the Chinese Air Force, so they used … images from Top Gun.

In a segment about the new J-10 fighter jet, CCTV news showed a plane being shot down, presumably by the J-10 pilot. But the unfortunate target was an American F-5, which needless to say would have created a few diplomatic problems had it been a real F-5.

But it wasn’t a real jet. CCTV played a clip from the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun. From GizModo, here are some sample vidcaps, CCTV on left, movie footage on right:

CCTV rips off Top Gun

CCTV rips off Top Gun

Quality news broadcasting, there.

Chinese censors suppress news about Egypt
Jan. 31, 2011

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — Al Jazeera reports that the net nannies in China are blocking discussion about the democratic movements in Egypt on a popular micro-blogging service. reports official news sources are keeping mum about the reasons for the protests, if they carry any reports about them at all. Apparently, China is also blocking Al Jazeera’s live video streams and sanitizing discussion forums as quickly as anyone posts.

Maybe the leaders in Beijing are a little worried. One wonders why.

I can get to Picasaweb again!
Feb. 10, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I am back from a three-week stay in Louisville, and still trying to adjust my internal clock to local time. (I woke up at 4 am today. Jeez.) During my absence from China, the net nannies here apparently decided to remove the block on Picasaweb. So, I can once again edit and upload my photos there.

Check out the new photos. Nothing truly exciting, but interesting, I hope. Before Christmas, I visited two local schools, one in the countryside and one in Jishou.

I have some thoughts about my trip back to the States, and about teaching here. I hope to get those written down soon, before classes resume on the 25th.

I know what I don’t know … I think
Feb. 16, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I realized over this winter holiday how much I don’t know about teaching English. Despite accolades from my students and my fellow teachers, I’m not so satisfied with my work so far. I get better at it every term, but I have a long ways to go as a language teacher.

Last term, my workload was relatively easy: two periods of Western Culture and six periods of Oral English a week. Nevertheless, a lot of my time was spent prepping for the Culture class. I felt somewhat guilty that I was not putting in more time prepping for the Oral English classes, especially for the freshmen, but I had organized the classes well enough that things pretty much took care of themselves.

This term, I have more work to do. The juniors have me for two subjects: British Literature and Academic Writing. Needless to say, I’ve got several months of hardcore reading and writing ahead of me. The sophomores will still meet me twice a week for Oral English, and I hope to try some new activities to enliven the classes even more. The freshmen will have a different foreign teacher, since we each typically teach eight periods (16 classes) a week.

I spent part of my mostly indolent winter holiday scouring Amazon for books to help me with my classes and generally with my teaching. Maybe I’ve mentioned it before, but Chinese universities give their foreign teachers little support. The expectation is that, as a native speaker, you already know all there is to know about English, so why give you textbooks in advance or suggested syllabi? The office tells you, “Your subject is X. The books will arrive a week before classes start — maybe.” And that’s it.

Fortunately, I spent 20-odd years as the sole physics teacher in a tiny college-prep high school. I was pretty left to my own devices, and I’m used to flying by the seat of my pants. But there, at least I could choose my own textbooks. Here, I get whatever the department chooses, and as best as I can tell, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection of the texts.

The Oral English classes use a textbook series from the UK, Inside/Out, which are really quite good. But these books are designed for all-in-one English as a Second Language classes, where adult students learn reading, writing, speaking and listening at once. Many of the cultural references are to things British, and there’s a definite Eurocentric slant to the activities. (My students, for example, have very little experience with dating, trying to pick up someone at a party, or hanging out in pubs and football games.) If I were teaching ESL in England, Inside/Out would be a great choice, I think.

But I don’t. I teach English as a Foreign Language (I discovered over the holiday that there is a distinction between ESL and EFL. I never knew. Duh.) in China. My students have separate classes for grammar, speaking, writing, reading and listening. There is little coordination among the various subjects, and I really have no idea what they learn in the other classes. I have skipped most of the written stuff in Inside/Out and use the book’s units as prompts for oral work. I’m not happy with this arrangement, but it has worked, if somewhat ineffectively.

(Brag moment: an American I met this weekend in Fenghuang complimented me on my standard and clear American pronunciation. Maybe the 30 years in Kentucky cancelled out the New York patois somehow. So, I guess I’m an ideal EFL teacher??)

The text for the Western Culture class was just plain abysmal, so I had a yeoman’s task facing me to compensate for the abysmal-ness. I am not expecting much better this term, so I decided to get my own texts.

Here’s my personal reading list.

British Literature
The Norton Anthology of English Literature (I only have volume 1 so far)
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare — in one volume! I found it at Barnes & Noble.
An Outline of English Literature (Longman)

Academic Writing
The Macmillan Reader
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) — a gold mine of resources

Teaching EFL in general, but stressing spoken English
Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language (Jerry G. Gebhard)
Fluency Through TPR Storytelling (Contee Seely)
Using the Board in the Language Classroom (Cambridge)
Live Action English

The Gebhard book is a concise and very helpful resource. He mixes practical ideas for activities in class with more theoretical discussions of methodology. I wish I had had it two years ago. He’s got some fun ideas on how to form student pairs and groups, how to remember names, how to break the ice on the first day of class, and how to get students to speak. The book also a comprehensive bibliography, which would take me decades to read through. I feel a lot less at sea with this one book.

I am still waiting for the last three books to arrive. I realized while I was packing for the return to China that my luggage was going to be way overweight, so I posted several things ahead of my departure. Of course, they are probably still on the way here.

The Norton Anthology and the Longman Outline have been useful to reacquaint myself with British Lit. I studied the modern novel for my CompLit concentration, so my foundation in the older stuff is pretty weak. (I have read some of Chaucer, though, with John V. Fleming as my professor. You should be impressed. Look him up.) The Outline is really brief, just 170 pages, while the Norton tome (volume 1) is about 3000 pages long. I hesitate to order the second volume. Shipping costs alone will kill me.

The Macmillan Reader will be a great resource for the writing class, although I expect the students will have another text. If anything, it will give me some support as I organize the course. I have taught the same students writing before, but it seems not much of what we covered stuck in their heads. So, I reckon I’ll have to review quite a bit, especially about the plagiarism part. A lot about the plagiarism part. Chinese students have no conception of the idea, at least as we understand it in the West.

Anyway, back to the original topic. There is a lot more to teaching EFL than meets the eye. (My former language teacher colleagues, Sarah and Angela, are probably laughing their heads off now at this rather brainless statement.) When I was here for my first year, I figured I would just do the best I could with as little as I had. But after two years going on three, I’ve realized I need to educate myself if I am going to be decent teacher. There are no pedagogy classes here, after all, and I was trained as a science teacher, not a foreign language teacher. So I have to make up for my deficiencies.

By the way, if you want to help me in my studies, you can always visit my Amazon wishlist. If you visit Amazon through the search box on the main page on this blog, I also get a little money.

My new perspective on bus plunge stories
March 4, 2011

LONGSHAN, HUNAN — No, I was not in a bus plunge accident, but I was in a bus, on a mountain road, in the rain last week. The experience was oddly enough one of the highlights of the last three weeks.

A time-honored half-inch filler in many newspapers has traditionally been the proverbial “bus plunge” story, which goes something like,

GENERICA, HOONOHSISTAN — Nearly 100 people died last week when their overloaded bus skidded off a snowy mountain road and into a ravine 100 feet below. Rescuers were unable to reach the scene until weather conditions improved yesterday.

Despite the morbid subject matter, among newspaper people, bus plunge stories are somewhat of a running joke, since they are basically boilerplate copy. You just change the date, the number of casualties and the location and leave everything else basically the same. For years, I half wondered if the Associated Press was pulling our legs and just making these stories up. Some intern was sitting at a desk somewhere manufacturing half-inch bus plunge stories for release at random times.

Of course, such accidents really do happen, and they’re no joke. All this was running through my mind as my bus ambled from Longshan to Jishou.

As the crow flies, Longshan 龙山 is barely 80 miles NNW of Jishou 吉首. But we’re in the mountains here, and there is no such thing (yet) as a halfway straight road between two places. By bus, it takes seven hours (yes, friends, seven hours) to travel between these two places. The route is basically a series of switchbacks up one range of mountains and down into the valley where Longshan (“Dragon Mountain,” literally) lies. And of course, there are stops along the way at other towns like Guzhang 古丈 — home of really wonderful tea — and Yongshun 永顺, even before you start the climb.

Not only that, but the Hunan Highway Department is rebuilding the road up thar in the hills, so some sections are not even paved. This required our iron-willed bus driver to pick his way carefully between ruts and potholes while weaving around slower motorcyclists, men on tractors and dump trucks carrying huge loads of rock blasted from the mountainsides. It wasn’t so bad on the way to Longshan, but on the way back, there was a light rain. The dirt roads turned into muddy roads and he had to drive even more carefully to keep us from being the subjects of a bus plunge filler.

So, yeah, seven hours was just fine by me.

So, why was I subjecting myself to this slow-motion roller coaster ride? One of my sophomores, Jackie Li, had invited me to her home while I was still in the USA. I knew it would be a grueling journey, but it was a serious invitation and I was determined to honor it.

It was worth the trip. First, I stuck another solo trip in my hat, successfully finding my way from Jishou to Longshan all by my little lonesome. Secondly, Jackie’s folks are really good cooks, and I got to meet most of her uncles and aunts, who were very delighted to meet their first foreigners. We visited some scenic places — up on mountains, of course. (Oh, my aching legs! Three weeks of idleness in Louisville did not prepare me for all the mountain climbing I did after I came back to China.) And, it was a relaxing way to spend my last week of Winter Holiday.

I came back to Jishou on Feb. 9, after sleeping off my 13-hour non-stop in a comfy hotel in Changsha 长沙. After a couple of days lazing in my apartment, I took off for a weekend trip to Fenghuang 凤凰, where a teacher friend had invited me to visit her home. Then, I went with another friend to Taohuayuan 桃花源 Nature Park, where if they are season you can see peach blossoms in bloom. There we met two charming middle school girls, who I swear hung around the park until we came down from our walk up the mountain just to speak with me. They helped us find a monkey habitat down the road, while they practiced their basic English.

After Taohuayuan (“peach blossom garden” but it also means “Shangri-La”), I visited Tongren 瞳仁, a small city about four hours away by train. There we climbed yet another mountain to visit Nine Dragon Cave 九龙洞 (jiu long dong). I swear I did as much vertical travel this winter vacation as I did horizontal!

Fortunately, none of the vertical travel included riding a bus on a one-way trip into a ravine. It would have been a crummy way to start the Year of the Rabbit in China.

Salt — the new gold!
March 18, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Salt has just become the most sought after commodity in China since Japan’s looming nuclear emergency started a week ago.

Prompted by word of mouth medical advice, Chinese — especially those in the eastern provinces close to Japan — have nearly cleared the supermarket shelves of salt. What salt is available is being sold at exorbitant prices, following the time-honored advice of W.C. Fields, “Never give a sucker an even break.”

[Apparently, the word on the street is that iodized salt — if they are even bothering to check for the iodized part — is a suitable replacement for potassium iodide (KI) pills. KI doses are a preventive measure against radioactive iodine, a component of nuclear fallout, concentrating in one’s thyroid glands. Someone consuming enough salt to effectively replace KI pills would probably keel over from high blood pressure, or at least from excessive thirst.]

Meanwhile, a fake email alert purporting to be from the BBC has circulated all around Asia, advising people to stay inside, avoid getting rained on, and to put betadine on the skin near their thyroid glands.

BBC Flash news : Japan Government confirms radiation leak at Fukushima nuclear plants. Asian countries should take necessary precautions. If rain comes, remain indoors first 24 hours. Close doors and windows. Swab neck skin with betadine where thyroid area is, radiation hits thyroid first. Take extra precautions. Radiation may hit Philippine at around 4 pm today. If it rains today or in the next few days in Hong Kong. Do not go under the rain. If you get caught out, use an umbrella or raincoat, even if it is only a drizzle. Radioactive particles, which may cause burns, alopecia or even cancer, may be in the rain.

We are nearly 1,000 miles from Japan, and there are even people in Hunan stocking up on salt and worrying about going outside. Today, I got a message on my cellphone from the local government advising people to be sensible and not go salt-crazy. It also asked us to report any price gouging to the police.

So, let’s talk some facts, at least as I know them.

There are lots of kinds of radiation. But the kind we need to discuss here is ionizing radiation, specifically the kind that comes from nuclear power plants, alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Ionizing radiation is just plain bad, because it disrupts our cell’s normal processes, or kills the cells completely, or causes mutations in our DNA.

Brief exposure to intense radiation, Bruce Banner and the Fantastic Four notwithstanding, will kill you. Period. You don’t get superpowers, or even a grouchy alter ego. You get massive skin burns and total cellular shutdown within hours. D-E-A-D. (Or D-E-D, if you’re a Rocky Horror fan.) The only people who need worry about this scenario are the 50 or so workers at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant. One worker has apparently already died from such a burst of radiation.

As you get further away from the site, the intensity of the radiation falls off with the square of the distance. So Japan has evacuated only those people within 30 km (18 miles) of the power plant, not the entire country.

But, there’s another side to the problem. The plant has been emitting radioactive steam and smoke into the atmosphere, and prevailing winds are carrying that stuff all over. Japanese officials have reported higher than normal radiation in Tokyo, which is southwest of the plant. In fact, within the next week or so, that radioactive stuff will reach the West Coast of the USA.

Like the inverse-square relation, the further the fallout goes, the further it gets spread out and the weaker it gets. So, while radiation levels might be higher than they are now, if you are in the USA or even China’s eastern provinces, they will not be high enough to be much of a danger. Some of the fallout’s components, like iodine, will have lost most of their radioactivity within days, anyway. Besides, the human body can recover from short exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation within days of exposure. (Though you’d feel like shit during the recovery. Just ask a cancer patient undergoing radiation therapy.)

Besides, one full body CT scan would expose you to far more radiation than the trickle of fallout from Japan would give you. A CT scan is equivalent to standing a mile and a half from ground zero when the A-bomb hit Hiroshima, without the million-degree heat and supersonic shock wave that would have turned you into bazillions of individual atoms, of course.

Closer to the site in Japan, there will be serious health and safety issues. Fallout will initially dust outside surfaces with radioactive materials. But over time, that dust will find its way into the soil, the groundwater, plants, and livestock. Anyone living in those areas would suffer the effects of longterm exposure to pervasive levels of environmental: increased chances of cancer, leukemia, birth defects and stillbirths, to name a few. There are still people suffering from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and from the power plant accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine, after all. Japan will probably have to declare the area around the Fukushima a No-man’s Land.

China has been ramping up its own nuclear energy program, but recently government officials announced a slowdown in plans. They want to inspect China’s existing nuclear plants, and reconsider the design of the ones planned. Japan’s woes after the earthquake and tsunami were a wake-up call to the dangers of nuclear power. Utlimately, China would have 40 nuclear power plants pumping out the megawatts to an ever expanding electrical grid.

One wonders if Japan will also reconsider its plant designs once it recovers from this week’s catastophes. Buying up salt will not be enough.

Prominent Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei “disappears”
April 4, 2011

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei

Chinese artist Ai WeiWei

JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese authorities have apparently detained artist Ai WeiWei, after they prevented him from flying overseas from Hong Kong’s airport on Sunday. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Following the public protests in several Middle Eastern and North African countries, China’s political bosses have been rounding up dissidents left and right, in an effort to quell any similar movements here.

Ai has had several run-ins with authorities already. He was blocked from attending the ceremony awarding Liu Xiaobo (who is in prison) the Nobel Peace Prize, one of his art studios near Shanghai was bulldozed, and in recent weeks, the cops have visited his offices and studios several times.

The artist, who designed the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium, had been keeping a running tally of dissident detentions on a Twitter feed that had 70,000 followers. I guess the politicos didn’t like that many people knowing what they’re up to.

The AP has the story, though The Guardian has a more detailed one.

Incidentally, the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of the press and freedom of expression. It’s just applied very selectively.

China charges Ai WeiWei with ‘economic crimes’
April 7, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — The BBC reports that Chinese authorities have confirmed they picked up dissident artist Ai WeiWei and are holding him for “economic crimes,” without providing any other details.

Ai, the co-designer of the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, has had several run-ins with Chinese authorities in the past, who don’t like his persistent questioning of the status quo. They reportedly arrested him Sunday at the Hong Kong airport, where he was planning to take a flight abroad. An exhibit of Ai’s work is at the Tate modern gallery in London.

Foreign governments have protested the arrest and detention, but Beijing has basically said, as it always has, “MYOB.” Here’s a quote from the BBC report, so you can see what I mean.

“China is a country ruled by law and will act according to law. We hope that the countries concerned will respect China’s decision,” [foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei] said.

Since I know nothing about Ai’s supposed “economic crimes,” (a bogus charge, in my view) I can’t say if he broke any applicable laws. As for his dissidence, Ai has apparently been very careful to follow the strict letter of the law, as spelled out in the Chinese Constitution. He told a reporter for The New Yorker once that he wanted to test the “system” to see how committed the government is to its own laws.

Only when it suits them, it seems.

The BBC article also highlights another arrest, of a man who investigated the 2008 Chinese milk scandal. Zhao Lianhai’s son died after drinking milk tainted with melamine, an industrial chemical. Zhao was picked up by police after he tried to organize a parents’ group and demand compensation for the kids made ill by the tainted milk. He finished a prison sentence last month.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Zhao alleged he had been force fed the same kind of milk powder after he went on a hunger strike.

Moral of the stories: don’t make waves and disturb the “harmonious society.” (That is, the political bosses.)

Chinese authorities charge Ai WeiWei with tax evasion, bigamy
April 14, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Take this news with a grain of salt, since it comes from official sources via The AP. Dissident artist Ai WeiWei, who has been detained for the last two weeks, has been charged with tax evasion, destroying evidence and bigamy.

No figures were given regarding how much tax Ai owes (if any), and his family has denied the charges, anyway.

“He has made the government unhappy by speaking up for ordinary people,” Ai’s sister Gao Ge told The Associated Press. “Now the government wants to get him back.”

Ai has been openly critical of government officials, challenging them through China’s own legal system to uphold constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and equal protection under the law. He was a public supporter of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is serving a 11-year sentence in China for “inciting subversion of state power.” (As in co-authoring Charter ’08, a call for more democracy in China. Very subversive. Yeah.)

The government newspaper Wen Wei Po, which is published in Hong Kong, has been smearing Ai as part of the government’s efforts to discredit him. In addition to the tax evasion charge, he is being held for allegedly destroying papers about his taxes, for bigamy and for spreading pornography over the Internet.

Ai is married, but has a child from a previous relationship. Everybody in his family is cool with it, and the whole situation is public knowledge. The New Yorker‘s readers even know about it. As for the porn, well, he’s an artist. According to The AP, Ai photographed himself in the nude with a stuffed animal covering his privates. Considering Ai’s portly physique, the photo is more art than porn, but maybe China’s politicos get off on that sort of thing.

(Incidentally, the stuffed animal was a “grass mud horse,” a mythical llama-like creature invented by Chinese Web users to tweak the noses of the national Internet censors. The Chinese words for “grass mud horse” sound very much like “go f*** your mother.”)

Last year, one of Ai’s studios outside Shanghai was razed by government-backed demolition crews. Authorities also preventing him — and Liu’s other friends and family — from leaving China to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. They picked Ai up at the Hong Kong airport earlier this month, as he was getting ready to leave the country. Ai has a show at the Tate Modern Art gallery in London now.

Hopefully, Ai will be released, but I’m not holding my breath. His visibility works for and against him. The government might want to use him as an example to discourage other lesser known “troublemakers” from being too outspoken.

Greetings from sunny Sanya!
April 25, 2011

SANYA, HAINAN — University students here take a class trip — “practical experience” in local educationese — in their penultimate year. So here I am vacationing — facilitating their practical experience with 23 juniors, and two other faculty.

So far, our practical experience has including visiting a botanical garden and three beaches, swimming, eating so-so food, and sitting through sales pitches (more about that later).

My own personal practical experience was to take my first scuba lesson. More about that later, too.

Tales of ‘spring break’
April 29, 2011

Yalong Haijiao in Sanya, Hainan

Yalong Haijiao in Sanya, Hainan

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, here’s a more detailed travelogue to follow up on the post I sent from my cell phone last week.

As I mentioned, students here in their next-to-last year take a class trip, so four groups of students were planning trips to Hainan 海南, a tropical island in the South China Sea, Beihai 北海, a tropical seaside southern resort city, Guilin 桂林, a picturesque city nestled among mountains and rivers in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region 广西, and Fenghuang 凤凰, the ancient city about two hours from Jishou 吉首. All four groups asked me to join them.

Oy, decisions, decisions!

The Beihai group asked first, but their trip was only four days long. With a half-day on the train each way, they really only had two days in Beihai. The Hainan group asked me, too. Their trip was seven days, with almost four spent in Hainan. The Guilin group asked, but later canceled their trip — some joined the Beihai tour, and the rest went to Fenghuang.

In all, about 100 students went to Fenghuang, primarily because it was much cheaper than the other trips, and required less bus travel. (I’ve noticed that a relatively higher number of Chinese than American students have motion sickness problems, at least from anecdotal evidence. This discourages a lot of them from traveling.)

Now, it would seem to be a piece of cake for me to join one of the tour groups, but as I discovered last year when a similar opportunity presented itself, it’s not so easy. One minor obstacle was my having to make up any missed class sessions – eight in my case. The major issue was the dean’s reluctance to have the college be responsible for my health and safety. In order to join the students, I had to agree it was a personal decision of mine, that I was going not as representative of the college or university but as a private citizen, and that I had to pay my own way.

So, I agreed, and paid my 1,050 yuan ($157) for a seven-day tour, with all meals and accommodations provided. Compared to my last visit to Sanya 三亚, on the southern end of Hainan, it was a steal. (We paid at least four times that much for our air fares and hotel costs alone then.)

The money-saver was taking the train, and not the plane, and traveling with a Chinese tour group. Hotels offer lower prices for local tours than for foreign tourists, too.

Students sitting in a hard sleeper compartment

Students sitting in a hard sleeper compartment

The train is much slower, of course, but we all had sleeper berths for the overnight journeys between Jishou and Zhanjiang 湛江, a rail terminus in Guangdong 广东 province. As a bargain tour, the berths were “hard beds,” meaning the cotton-padded mattresses are only about two inches thick. There are six in each compartment, three on a side, and the compartments are open to the corridor. Soft beds are more expensive and more comfortable: four cushier beds to a private compartment. For either kind, on our trains, the toilets and washrooms are at either end of the car.

So, from Jishou to Zhanjiang was almost 20 hours, because we were on the local — the kind of train that stops at nearly every town along the way and has to yield right-of-way to faster trains and even freights.

How do you while away the hours on a train? I came prepared with a book to read (Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding), music and movies, and a willingness to just look at the scenery pass by. The students taught me their version of the party game called “Killer”, which we played for several rounds.

We arrived in the predawn hours of Saturday. From Zhanjiang, we took a bus two hours to Hai’an 海安, where there is a ferry port to Haikou 海口 on Hainan Island. The ferry trip lasts about an hour.

About 20 years ago, Hainan was an undeveloped and neglected island, part of Guangdong province. Then the central government realized it could become China’s version of Hawai’i, made it a distinct province (Haikou is the capital), and set about encouraging the tourist trade there. Now there are a wide variety of places and activities, from snorkeling to Vegas-style showgirls.

Our schedule was not overly busy, fortunately. Though we spent some time on the bus, we also had time to enjoy the sights and relax.

Saturday: Arrive in Zhanjiang. Bus to Hai’an, ferry to Haikou. Rest in Haikou. No scheduled activities, other than dinner.

Sunday: Bus to the east coast, near Wanning 万宁. Visit a barrier island at Bo’ao 博鳌 and play in the surf. Visit a botanical garden/business in Xinglong 兴隆, where they grow coffee, cacao, vanilla, coconut and other tropical plants. Visit the Xinglong factory of Erancafé, a Hainan coffee grower. Stay at resort hotel for the night.

Monday: Bus to Sanya. Visit a knife factory for a sales pitch. Visit a crystal factory for a sales pitch. Spend a brief time at Dadonghai 大东海 (where I visited last year), then proceed to a seaside park, Tianya Haijiao 天涯海角. Afternoon, visit West Island in Yalongwan 亚龙湾. Stay in hotel near downtown Sanya.

Tuesday: Visit Yalongwan beach, Sanya. Lunch, then get on the bus to Haikou. Visit another shopping emporium on the way. In Haikou, we visited Hainan University, which was just 10 minutes’ walk from our hotel.

Wednesday: Leave Haikou in the morning. Return to Zhanjiang, board the train in the afternoon.

Thursday: Arrive Jishou at 7:00 am

Now, perhaps you noticed the business and sales pitch stops. Tour agencies here have a very slim profit margin, especially for a low-budget student tour. So, one way to supplement their income is to take their tours shopping, where I imagine the guides get a small commission on the products the tourists buy. I experienced this last year when the faculty took a tour of Shaoshan 韶山, the hometown of Mao Zedong 毛泽东. We also visited a knife factory, where we got the same live infomercial as I saw in Sanya last week.

After you walk around the botanical garden and look at the plants (which are not labeled very well), you’re taken to a cafe where you are given samples of their products to taste — in this case, cocoa, coconut milk, vanilla and coffee. (They market a tea made from vanilla plant leaves. Our consensus was, yeech!) Then, in order to leave, you walk through a labyrinthine retail store, where sales associates ply you with samples and entreaties to buy, buy, buy.

The coffee factory tour was not really a tour of the factory, but a brief introduction to coffee and the company. We only saw some windowed work rooms showing unattended roasting and grinding equipment, and a few workers packing products by hand for shipping. I suspect the real factory operation uses machines for the packaging — the workers were literally window-dressing. Then, to exit, we once again walked through a retail labyrinth.

And yes, I did buy some things that I figured I couldn’t get in Jishou, like freshly roasted and ground coffee.

The knife factory was a straight-forward sales pitch, with a free paring knife as a “prize.” The crystal emporium was a glitzy monument to the miraculous powers of crystals, with showcase upon showcase of high-priced jewelry that to my unprofessional eyes looked identical to the low-priced trinkets sold in the small mom-and-pop booths that clutter every tourist trap in China. I don’t think any of us bought anything at the crystal place.

The shopping trips were boring, but not as annoying as it might seem. Most of us were in high spirits, with a long holiday away from classes and pleasantly warm weather to bolster our moods. Most of the students had never been to Hainan, or even to the seashore, so the retail excursions were just minor annoyances, like the many mosquitoes at night.

Happy campers on the beach

Happy campers on the beach

The beaches in Sanya are remarkably clean, and the water is very clear, though sometimes clouded with fine white silt. West Island, where we spent one afternoon, has even nicer beaches and many aquatic activities, like parasailing, sea-doo rentals, glass-bottomed boat trips, and the like. Two students and I opted to try scuba diving, while most of the others just headed for the beach. We paid 320 yuan ($48) each for an hour and half of reef diving.

It was our first time diving, and more experienced divers would probably be appalled at the relative lack of preparatory instruction offered us: a brief look at a poster of the hand signals, a few short words about equalizing ear pressure, then off to the dock to don your weights and breathing equipment. On the bright side, each of us had our own personal instructor (mine of course spoke no other English than “OK”), who allowed us time to get used to being underwater. We all found that the instructors were too much in a hurry to get us to dive deeper. We all forgot the ear pressure equalization and motioned to came up to the surface pretty quickly. So, in the end, our teachers sent us back to the dock after just 40 minutes in the water. (I was the last to return, though.)

LingLing remembered to order photos for herself, but Jack and I forgot. So I have no photographic evidence of me in a wetsuit. You’ll have to use your imagination.

While I can swim, I am by no means a fish in the water, so I wondered how I would adapt to diving. To my delight, I found I really enjoyed the whole experience, and took to the scuba gear quickly. To my dismay, I just plain forgot to deal with my ear pressure in the excitement of trying something new. Next time, I will know better. Having an English-speaking teacher would be a plus, too, I’m sure.

So, all in all, it was a great trip. I made friends with one of the new teachers in our college, with whom I shared hotel rooms, and spent time with about 20 of my students in a different venue than the classroom.

[Accompanying college students on a class trip is so much easier than chaperoning high school students. While we teachers were responsible for their safety, we did not have to monitor for alcohol use or co-habitation in the hotels. (There was one student couple. I made no inquiries as to their sleeping arrangements.) On the other hand, Chinese students are less rowdy (one may also say adventuresome) than Americans. On our first night, we had the entire evening to ourselves and there was at least one dance club and a bar within sight of our hotel. What did our students do? Stayed in the hotel to watch TV and play cards.]

I’ve posted some photos to Facebook, and most are in my Picasaweb site, which mercifully is working again. Considering some of you are either being sucked up in the air by tornadoes or washed away by the Ohio River, I hope you enjoy looking at my less drama-filled surroundings.

Explaining Osama to Chinese students
May 6, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — While Osama bin Laden was a big name in the West, he was a blip that barely showed up on the radar of most Chinese students here. So, I and my fellow foreign teachers have had to explain why his death is such a big deal.

For example, one guy was surprised to learn that nearly 3,000 people died in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. I explained that bin Laden had taken credit for the 9/11 attacks, and that was why he had been on the USA’s most wanted list for the past decade.

A girl — one of our smartest students — wanted to know if the successful raid on bin Laden’s suburban lair would mean President Barack Obama would get re-elected. I offered the surmise that Obama’s approval ratings got a boost, but time will tell whether his rating remains high. There are a few other issues he needs to deal with before the next elections.

Her classmates asked how Pakistan, our ostensible ally in the fight against bin Laden and Al Qaeda, will react after US forces swooped in near a Pakistani military base to engage bin Laden in his own home. I had no answer for that, other than to note that Pakistan has egg on its face right now, and a whole lotta ‘splaining to do.

To my surprise, some students have picked up on the conspiracy theories floating around that (1) bin Laden has been dead for years, or (2) the raid and killing were just a ruse and bin Laden is still alive. Most have discounted the likelihood of either being true, though.

I had an interesting QQ chat with another fellow who argued that bin Laden had a valid bone to pick with the USA, given our penchant for invading Muslim states and/or interfering with their politics. I agreed with him to a small extent, but pointed out that Al Qaeda had specifically targeted civilians who had nothing to do with American involvement in international affairs. Then I added that New York City is my hometown, and so I took the destruction of the World Trade Center and the death there a little personally.

You may have heard that the State Department has issued a warning to all Americans abroad to be careful and avoid crowds, stay at home or in our hotel, etc., in case of Al Qaeda reprisals. I got one from the US Embassy in Beijing. But there’s nothing to worry about. I doubt Al Qaeda has any presence in a poor section of south-central China. I worry more about the pickpockets on the buses and the streets downtown. So, I’m OK.

Recruiting students
May 11, 2011

ZHANGJIAJIE, HUNAN — This week I learned that colleges in China have the same problem as colleges in the USA. They need to pull students in to stay viable.

Students in China choose their majors before entering university. So, each college in a uni (we call them “departments” in the States) would like to maximize the chances of getting sufficient enrollment. It’s not feasible to visit all the high schools in western Hunan on recruiting drives, but relatively easy to visit the preparatory college here in Zhangjiajie to attract some candidates.

That’s what ten of us teachers and students from Jishou U did. We did two hours of marketing to about 200 students midway between high school and university: first our vice dean, then me (with student interpreter), then a sophomore from our college, then a Q&A. There were also two Powerpoint presentations, one by Vice Dean Song Jie and the other by sophomore Helen Xiao.

Our greatest hits: our graduates’ 98% employment rate, the foreign teacher who can speak a little Chinese, the sophomore girl who has broadcast the weather on municipal TV, the dean who has met President Hu Jintao.

To be honest, I was surprised and just a little pleased to be asked to come along on this junket. Apparently, I am considered to be a big draw for the college. Besides, I could visit my friend and former colleague, Connie Hu, who was mostly responsible for me being here in the first place.

Oh, and I got to travel at company expense.

Travel here seems to get easier every year. There is now a faster train (T-class, meaning express) between Jishou and Changsha, which also stops at Zhangjiajie. It shaves 30 minutes off that trip, and the seats are much more comfortable than the usual slow trains. We left mid-afternoon Monday and pulled into Zhangjiajie just before dinner.

We took a city bus to the university’s campus there, where the deans of the preparatory college met us. This college is just what you’d think it is, a program to get under-performing students up to speed for the university. Typically, their gaokao scores are a little low for automatic admission to Jishou U. All seven students visiting the college with us are graduates of this program. They are some of the sharpest students I have, so the gaokao is a poor measure of performance, IMHO.

We went to dinner, where the deans and I shared some baijiu. (He of course ordered the high test stuff, 108 proof. I should have asked for beer.) After dinner, he (now quite loosened up) told us about his life and career. What I could understand sounded like a Dickens novel.

Mister Pu’s mother died when he was 5. His father was a victim of the Cultural Revolution, suspected of being a capitalist. Rather than live with his dad, Pu was sent to live with relatives. The youngest among several cousins, he had to do a lot of housework even as a little boy, and was treated more as a servant than a member of the family.

Despite it all, he was able to do well in school and attended university in Shandong. He was a businessman for a time, then entered teaching. Finally, he became dean of the prep college.

Though I couldn’t understand their local language (yeah, they were not speaking Chinese, hence I was more lost than usual), I could tell he and the students in our party were genuinely fond of each other.

After he finished his tales, we teachers and students went out for after dinner snacks and beers. This is a unique custom here. Eat (and maybe drink) a lot at dinner, then around 8:30, go out for snacks and more drinks. Suffice it to say, by the time 10:00 rolled around we were all feeling quite happy. And full. (And the grilled fish was really damn good!)

Fortunately, we were not expected to be coherent until that afternoon. I spent an enjoyable three hours over lunch with Connie, whom I had not seen for about a year, though we live just two hours apart. We had a lot to talk about, including my college trying to steal prospective students away from hers, the Foreign Language College.

Connie is a native of Zhangjiajie, and came to the USA to be a Chinese teacher in 2006-2007. We were co-workers for that year, and at the end of her visit, I asked her if I could teach at her university. She got the wheels turning in Jishou, and to make a long story short, that’s why I am here recruiting students for my latest employer.

Asking her that question four years ago was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Canary in the cage
May 17, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I hear tell that the Rapture will happen this Saturday. I’m not clear if the prophet, Harold Camping, has worked out the exact time of the event, but since China is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Time, I’ll give you a heads up.

Protestor throws shoe at creator of the Great Firewall
May 19, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Fang Binxing was lecturing at Wuhan University in Hubei (about eight hours from here) when a member of the audience throw two shoes and an egg at him. One shoe connected, it seems.

Fang is the architect of China’s pervasive net-nanny system that controls what Chinese can see on the Internet, and what content is allowed on Chinese websites. It’s popularly called the Great Firewall of China. Needless to say, Fang is none too popular among Chinese Internet users.

Predictably, tweets about the shoe attack were promptly blocked, as were web searches for the person documenting the prank.

The BBC has a more complete report.

In the interests of global understanding, perhaps George W. Bush can give Fang lessons on shoe-ducking.

Nothing to see here. No Rapture here. Now move along.
May 21, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Six pm came and went, and nothing unusual happened, despite Harold Camping’s prophecy of the Rapture today. It is raining, but cats and dogs, not fire and brimstone. No one rose up into Heaven, either.

Draw your own conclusions. And enjoy your weekend — maybe it will be rapturous in an entirely different way.

The Graduation Class of 2011
June 10, 2011

Class of 2008 English Education graduates and teachers

Class of 2008 English Education graduates and teachers

JISHOU, HUNAN — The students pictured above are the third group I’ve seen graduate from Jishou University, and the graduates I have spent the most time with. So, it’s with a little sadness that I will see them leave here in a few days.

They were among the first students I taught at JiDa. I taught them for two years, and of course have known all of them for three. Several are among my best friends here. You may recognize some faces from my Picasaweb and Facebook albums, since we’ve shared a lot of good times together.

Their major is English education (a three-year, non-baccalaureate program), and many have already found work teaching in schools or training centers in Changsha, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhejiang and Fujian. A few will continue their studies to get a full bachelor’s degree in another two years. Others have found work outside education. And, of course, a few are still looking for jobs.

You may remember my saying that teaching at a Chinese university is a bit like teaching in an American high school. The students above represent two groups, Z1 and Z2, who are like class sections in the US. In other words, Z1 students (and similarly Z2 students) have attended all their classes together as a group for the last three years. They have also had roommates from their own groups, or at least from the same college. So, this constant contact builds a strong sense of solidarity and camaraderie.

It also means their teachers get to know them much better than I suspect American professors can their classes. I am proud to say I know all of their English names and a fair number of their Chinese names, and can even tell you some of their hometowns.

In all, I have seen 27 groups of my students graduate, and of course all four of my kids graduate. It’s been a bittersweet moment each time, because as a teacher you’re happy they are ready to start the next phase of their lives, but as a friend and companion (and father), you’re sorry to see them go.

Anyway, I present to you the Class of 2011, College of International Exchange, Jishou University. May they be happy every day!

How to speak English, Chinese style
June 10, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my students showed me this video, from a website called Hujiang English Network. The guy in the vid shows us how to speak English with a Mandarin accent (not a Canto accent — so, you won’t sound like a Hong Kong action movie).

Although he’s joking around, the way some Chinese pronounce English comes out sounding just like he says it does. Chinese is a tonal language: every syllable has one of four tones** (nine tones for Cantonese) and each syllable is pronounced distinctly. A Chinese may try to speak English words the same way, so it comes out sounding like machine-gun fire. (Native English speakers tend to connect words together, dontcha know?)

And, as he notes, Chinese will substitute Mandarin words for English words that sound similar, like dǔ 琽 = “stopped up” for “do,” tī 踢 = “kick” for “tea/tee/tip.”

If you visit the Hujiang link, they have the “translations” of the not-so-obvious phonetic substitutions he makes. Here they are, with the real meanings next to them.

downtown = dāng tàng 当烫 = when hot!
gun = gāng 刚 = hard!
big gun = dà gāng 大刚 = really hard!
job = jiǎo bó zi 脚脖子= ankle!
beautiful = biāo tè fǒu 彪特否 = tiger very evil!
congratulations = kēng guā chū lai de shǐ 坑刮出来的屎 = blow out of shit pit!

I’m not sure who the fellow is, but he’s good. His name is Magician Joe, out of Vancouver, British Columbia. He’s got a YouTube page. And you can find him on Facebook and Twitter as @popking161.

[I am introducing a new feature with this post, a WordPress plugin that puts a tooltip for the Chinese characters, to give the pinyin (Roman-alphabet) version for pronunciation. Hover your mouse over one of the Chinese characters, and you’ll see what I mean. Sorry, Facebook users, you’ll just have to visit my blog to see it in action.

The plugin is from, a blog for things Chinese but in English. Check it out!]

** The four tones are:
First: high and steady, as in ma1 mā 妈 = “mom, mother”
Second: rising (like a question) ma2 má 蟆 = “toad”
Third: down then up (like the Swedish chef) ma3 mǎ 马 = “horse”
Fourth: falling and short (like a command) ma4 mà 蚂 = “grasshopper”

Funny car sticker: You got the right nozzle?
June 19, 2011

Got the right nozzle?

Got the right nozzle?

I saw this sticker this weekend over the fuel door of a parked car. The caption reads lìyóuzuìne? 力油嘴呢? and the “+93#” refers to the octane value. Freely translated, it means “You got the right nozzle?”

The car is an Emgrand EC8 (the Chinese name is dìháo pǐnpái 帝豪品牌 — literally, Grand or Heroic Imperial Brand), a luxury marque of the Geely Holding Co. of Zhejiang. Geely is already exporting these cars to the European Union, Africa and Asia, and may soon enter the US market. Geely is best known for buying Volvo from Ford Motor Co. last year.

While I’m on the subject of cars, a few weeks ago I rode in the back seat of a co-worker’s Škoda automobile, which had the roomiest back seat second only to a Checker Cab (or a Hudson Hornet). Škoda is a Czech brand that exports to China and other Asia-Pacific countries, and the UK. His model would be equivalent to a Buick Regal, another popular upscale car in China among those who can’t afford the stratospheric prices of a BMW or a Mercedes.

Dissidents released just before Chinese premier visits the UK
June 27, 2011

JISHOU, CHINA — What a coincidence. Days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited British Prime Minister David Cameron to sign trade deals worth $2.2 billion, Chinese officials released two prominent dissidents, Ai WeiWei and Hu Jia.

Cameron, pro forma, gave some lip service to preserving human rights as he signed the trade agreements worth £1.4 billion, while Wen gave the usual Chinese reply — “MYOB” — though somewhat more diplomatically than my shorter version.

Last week, Ai, an internationally known artist, was finally released on bail after being picked up in a Hong Kong airport three months ago and kept virtually incognito. He was charged officially with tax evasion, but he also has been a vocal political gadfly in China. Ai has been publicizing the names of students who died when their “tofu-construction” schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The state news agency reported Ai, 54, was released because he had confessed to his crimes and because he was in poor health. Prior to his arrest, Ai, his family and his associates denied any tax evasion.

Hu, 37, was also released at the end of his a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on Sunday, which apparently was his official release date. He had been put away for “inciting subversion” for his sharp criticism of the government’s human rights record preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In an open letter published in 2007, Hu wrote:

The Olympics will be held in a country where there are no elections, no freedom of religion… where torture and discrimination are supported by a sophisticated system of secret police.

Hu and his wife documented their lives under police surveillance in a video that went viral later that year. He was tried and imprisoned in 2008.

Both men are under a form of house arrest. Hu’s house is under constant surveillance, and he cannot talk to the media, publish anything, or join any organization. He and his wife will also find it hard to find employment, and could even be evicted from their house. Meanwhile, Ai has been told he cannot leave Beijing, though he has studios in Shanghai.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo remains in the slammer, serving out an 11-year sentence for subversion. Liu is a co-author of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for broader civil rights in China, as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.

The two men are just the tip of the iceberg. Reportedly, authorities have jailed two dozen political dissidents throughout China in the last year.

Photoshop fail #1.4E8
June 30, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — An inept Photoshopping of some local Chinese officials inspecting a new road has generated a flurry of more creative versions of the same image among Chinese netizens.

A photographer took two photos of three officials out in the countryside, and decided to doctor them into a more appealing image for the county government website. Here’s the original images:


And here’s the ‘shopped version, as it appeared on the website.


You will note, I hope, that the three gentleman appear to be hovering over the roadway. Also, the man on the right is different. The image was promptly removed from the website and the photographer reprimanded, after parodies of the doctored image went viral. Here are a few examples.

With the dinosaurs:


On the Moon:


In Nazi Germany:


More examples are here.

Another term draws to a close
July 9, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work these last two weeks, so I haven’t had time to post anything. Even this one will be short.

This term I had only three subjects to teach, Oral English, British Literature and Academic Writing, but the last two upped my workload significantly. The juniors in Business English take those courses, and altogether there are 90 students. Their term project for the writing class was to read a novel by a British author, and write an analytical paper of 1,000 to 2,000 words about it.

Given the average length was about 1,400 words, my ambitious assignment required me to read 126,000 words between the due date, June 16, and my self-imposed deadline of Friday (yesterday here). Most of that I did once classes ended a week ago. Meanwhile, I had already agreed to help out one of my Chinese teacher friends with her English school, so in the mornings I was teaching middle schoolers and the afternoons and evenings I was reading essays.


As for the quality of the essays, they fit the standard distribution pretty closely: a few superb ones, a few truly awful ones, and the rest in the middle. Considering none of these students had ever done such a paper before, the results were better than I expected. As for the low end, some were bad because the students’ English skills are poor, or because they hadn’t actually read the book. A few were cribbed from the Internet, and I gave them zeroes as a result. The re-writes are due July 12, for a non-zero but substantially diminished passing grade.

For you would-be cheaters, here’s some advice: the papers you can download for free from the Internet are crap. If you manage to get one past your teacher or your prof, I feel sorry for you, because your teacher or prof is crap, too. Either their standards are very low, or they’re just not reading the papers.

The project awaiting me now are the Brit Lit exams, also 90 strong, from yesterday morning. These will be quicker to grade, and they’d better be, since my grades are due Friday the 15th.

The teaching gig is just three hours or oral English lessons in the morning at a downtown location. So, for two weeks I have become a commuter again, riding the bus to and from the city center. The pay is pretty good, 100 yuan an hour, for a total of about 3900 yuan. (My monthly pay from the university is 4280 yuan.)

Then, the following week, I will be in a small neighboring town, Yongshun, teaching middle school teachers oral English. This course was arranged by the local foreign teachers bureau, who hand out our teaching licenses, so I felt rather obligated to agree to work for them. The pay is also 100 yuan an hour, for basically six days’ work: two days of lectures and four days of conversational practice.

Once that’s done, my whirlwind vacation can start. A day or two in Changsha, a few days in Beijing, a couple of days in Los Angeles, then to Indiana (for my son’s graduation from Purdue) and Iowa, Kentucky or what have you, then Chicago, and a week in Shanghai and maybe other places, to finally return to Jishou by August 25 or so.

Yep, that’s right. I’ll be here another year — my fourth. So far, I haven’t found a compelling reason to leave, and many compelling reasons to stay. Why spoil a good thing?

Why do people freak out about snakes?
July 14, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday morning, I left my flat to head downtown. Ahead of me, I saw a young guy crouching down to take photos of a bright green garden snake who had gotten very lost. Here’s the little fella:



I say he (or she, kinda hard to tell) was lost because there’s nothing but yards and yards of concrete up where I live, and he was having no luck scaling the wall.

Anyway, the photographer guy and I are admiring the snake when an older woman walks past and starts freaking out. As far as I know, she doesn’t live anywhere near me, but for some bizarre reason she homed in on this garden snake with the intent to do it in.

First, she tried whacking it with a stick she was carrying. We stopped her. Then she picked up a chunk of concrete, and tried to bash the snake with it, all the while fussing loudly in local language (not Chinese). We tried blocking her again, but she managed to heave the chunk in the snake’s general direction. No harm done. Her pitching arm is in Little League, and the snake was wisely sticking close to the wall.

The Chinese guy tried to calm the lady down or shoo her away, but she was determined to flatten that poor snake. We weren’t sure what the lady would do if we picked up the snake and threw him to safety. As hysterical as she was, she might have bashed one of us with the concrete chunk. Mostly, we just ran interference.

Since I had to be somewhere soon, I had to leave the snake to whatever fate awaited him (or her). But, when I came back a few hours later, there was no snake, no crazy lady and no blood-stained concrete, so I suppose fate was kind to the little green snake.

So, I ask you, what was that all about? The snake was not threatening anyone. In fact, it was heading away from the old woman, who as I said, went out of her way to hunt it down and flatten it. If someone is that afraid of snakes, wouldn’t they just avoid them?

Just plain weird.

Quick itinerary before I fly out the door
July 18, 2011
JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s my travel plans for the next few days.

Today – July 25: Yongshun, about two hours from here, co-leader of a teachers’ workshop for middle school English teachers
July 26: leave for Changsha, hang out a day or 2
July 27 or 28: leave for Beijing, hang out till Aug. 1
Aug. 1: Beijing to Tokyo to Los Angeles
Aug. 1 (local time): LA, hang out a couple of days
Aug. 5: Chicago, then W. Lafayette, Indiana
Aug. 6 – 13: ???
Aug. 13: Leave Chicago for Shanghai, arrive Aug. 14 local time
Aug. 14 – ??: Shanghai

I’ll blog when able.

Teaching teachers English
July 29, 2011

YONGSHUN, HUNAN — I have participated in who-knows how many teacher workshops, training sessions and in-service days during 25 years of teaching. Last week, I approached the task from a new angle — as an in-service teacher — and it went better than I expected.

Several weeks ago, my foreign affairs officer, Cyril, asked me if I was going to be around during the summer. The Xiangxi Prefecture foreign experts bureau (the people who hand out our teaching licenses) was organizing a one-week oral English workshop for local middle school teachers. The job actually sounded like fun, although the pay was also decent, so I agreed to do it.

I was joined by Michael, an American teaching in the Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie. Our duties were to teach pronunciation and intonation, useful expressions, and the differences between American and British English. Michael took the expressions assignment, and I did the nitty-gritty pronunciation/intonation tasks.

Our students were 37 teachers from Yongshun, Huayuan, Luxi, Baojing, Fenghuang and Jishou — all counties or cities in the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. Most were between the ages of 24 and 40 and, I am happy to report, had really good English speaking skills already.

Having sat through endless training sessions where the trainers read Powerpoint slides to us and talked in pointless generalities, and having enjoyed fruitful and well planned workshops where we actually learned shit, my aim as a leader was to focus on the practical side. After all, I am now an English teacher, too, and I know what I wish my students had learned before they come to university.

[It is a sad fact that some teachers tapped to be workshop or in-service leaders do a crappy job of teaching teachers. I have no clue why or how such people end up as invited speakers or trainers, unless it’s the Peter Principle at work. I was determined not to be one of them, in any event.]

As part of my own self-training, I came across a book by Ann Cook, American Accent Training. Cook’s premise is that American speech patterns are like jazz — Americans have a distinct jazzy rhythmic and tonal quality to our speech. She promotes the idea that a second language (L2) learner has to capture this tonal quality to improve his or her oral English. Pronunciation (making the vowels and consonants sound right) is only one part of the equation.

To be sure, some of my students have really bad pronunciation, and not just of the problem sounds like th, r, l and the oo in foot or /ae/ in cat. Their tongues just don’t move around quick enough to reproduce the sounds (ok, ok, phonemes) of English. But most of them have intonation that is either very Chinese (a tone on each word and a very constant rhythm), completely atonal, or slightly random. I had spent the last term working with my sophomores on their intonation for these reasons. It was their last chance to have oral English classes.

I’m going to put my Powerpoint slides online later, but here’s a few highlights for folks without a burning interest in teaching oral English.

  • There are about 20 vowel phonemes in British English (Received Pronunciation — BBC speak), largely because Brits don’t pronounce r’s at the end of syllables or words, as in “nurse” or “mother.” American English has about 14 vowels, depending on whether you use Cook’s West Coast American English or my Mid-Atlantic English (does your “cot” rhyme with “caught” or “thought” — if it doesn’t, you’re probably from the East).
  • Brits and Americans pronounce all the consonants identically, except for final /r/ of course.
  • However, Americans turn /t/ in the middle of words into a soft /d/ sound, which runs contrary to every English pronunciation guide in China. We Yanks don’t say “Betty bought a bit of bitter butter” with very precise and proper t’s. We say “Beddy boughda bidda bidder budder.” Imagine you’re an L2 learner hearing that sentence for the first time — “What did he say?”
  • Some Chinese have trouble distinguishing between /l/ and /n/, even in Mandarin, because the tongue is in almnost the same place. Likewise, some confuse /h/ and /f/, and /v/ and /w/, for similar dialect reasons.
  • The American /r/ is really hard to teach. So is the zh sound, as in measure.
  • English is stress-timed. Stressed syllables stand out and are spoken at a regular rhythm, while unstressed syllables are said quickly to maintain the rhythm. To use an example from Cook, “How are you?” has the rhythm “dada dum” (like 8th note 8th note quarter note, if you’re musically inclined). Chinese is not stress-timed, so speaking Engish with a strong Chinese rhythm sounds staccato, like a machine gun firing.
  • Our students were eager learners. They don’t get many chances to speak English with native speakers, or anyone else, really, in our part of the boondocks.

I had so much to teach in my first sessions that I went too long. No one bothered to tell me we should take an hourly break. Oops. I also lectured more than I wanted to. We had only two days scheduled for lectures, so I packed a lot of information in. Maybe too much, as some teachers admitted they needed to review my presentation to understand all of it.

So, I guess I can forgive some of my previous in-service leaders for their errors. But not the ones who read their Powerpoint slides verbatim. Those people deserve their own circle in Hell for the pain and suffering their delivery inflicts on their audiences. I don’t plan to join them.

Teaching teachers English, part 2
July 30, 2011

YONGSHUN, HUNAN — This part is less about the teaching, and more about the whole experience of the training gig.

First of all, getting there was a job in itself. This part of China is mountainous, a lot like the Appalachian region in the USA, so straight line distances on maps mean nothing. For example, I had passed through Yongshun 永顺 back in February, when I visited Jackie Li in Longshan, which is even further back in the hill country. On a map, Longshan 龙山 is only about 150-200 km away from Jishou; the trip took seven hours.

Yongshun, fortunately, is not at the end of a major road construction project. Even so, it took two hours to get there on twisty roads that rival New York City streets for potholes per linear meter.

Aside from topography, and the attendant isolation, there is not much else in common between Appalachia and this part of China. For one thing, Yongshun County has a population of almost 500,000; the city has about 70,000. That’s a pretty big “small town.” The city, like Jishou, is a big grubby, but also showing signs of steady improvement. In other words, it’s not Podunk, but you can see it from there.

After we arrived, we settled into our hotel (about a 2-star in my book, but the closest to the school where we’d be teaching) and then had dinner with, not the teachers, but the local and prefectural mucky-mucks who were all men ranging age from 30 to 50. Baijiu (Chinese “wine”) is a necessary part of such gatherings. Michael and I did our part to represent America in the Baijiu Drinking Cup, earning some respect from the local pros.

The next day, there was an opening ceremony. Chinese seem really big on such formalities, which give mucky-mucks a chance to look important and pontificate to a captive audience, while cameras click and roll to record the event. Both Michael and I were called on to contribute our own comments, which were much briefer.

The venue for the workshop was Number 1 Middle School in Yongshun (Yi Zhong 一中, more briefly), a ginormous school with 4,000 students in grades 7-12. About half those students live at the school, since daily commuting is out of the question. Yi Zhong is one of the best middle schools in Xiangxi, with a brand new gym, a stadium that rivals those at some small American colleges, Internet access, and multimedia rooms.

After the opening festivities, I gave my main presentation, and we broke for lunch. Again, and for the last time, we had dinner with the mucky-mucks while the teachers ate in another dining room. We discovered later that the leaders expected Michael and I to eat apart from the teachers for the whole week, even after the leaders left. This idea we both quickly corrected before dinnertime.

After lunch, we all went to a local nature park, Bu Er Men 不二门. That particular day was the birthday of the bodhisattva Guan Yin 觀音. So the park was mobbed with worshipers who left burnt incense sticks and food containers all over the park. Our hosts were somewhat embarrassed at the mess.

The rest of the week was not as noteworthy. We taught our classes, talked to the teachers, made friends, visited a KTV, took lots of photos. After dinner one evening, a group of us went for a walk around town. Jennifer, one of the Yi Zhong teachers, asked me if I would be willing to meet some of her students for dinner. I agreed, as did Michael later on.

So, about 16 middle school students, two teachers and two Americans had a nice dinner away from the hotel, complete with beer. Yes, Americans, that’s right, beer.

Chinese men may overdo it on the baijiu on business occasions, but generally the Chinese attitude about drinking is much more sensible than in the USA.Here, it is perfectly acceptable for 16-year-olds to drink beer at the dinner table or KTV, even while accompanied by their teachers. In the US, both those teachers would be out of work in no time flat, and facing criminal charges besides. We had a perfectly good time with the students. No one got drunk (hard to do on weak Chinese beer, anyway), and if anything, some lost their shyness about speaking English.

[I am not sure, however, that encouraging drinking during language class has a lot of merit.]

The next morning, we adults took more photos, had a closing ceremony with fewer speeches, and ate our last lunch together, with the usual ceremonial baijiu. I got home around 4 pm, collapsed on the bed and slept for 6 hours. The next day (Saturday), I would prepare for my real vacation to begin: a four-week China-USA junket.

The USA sojourn
Aug. 24, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN – Somehow, my grand plan of blogging while traveling did not come to pass. The time and means to upload to my site were not always available. So, now you get the updates about a week late.

SOMEWHERE OVER THE ALEUTIANS, Aug. 14 — One of the problems in spur-of-the-moment traveling is coping with glitches. While my arrival in and departure from the US were all arranged, travel in between was a bit murky.

My plans were hang out in Los Angeles for a few days, fly to Chicago, see my son graduate from Purdue, do stuff depending on the plans of my family members, and then leave from Chicago Aug. 13.

Complicating this grand, if somewhat sketchy plan was a glitch with my credit card. My account was locked out because I made the honest mistake while in LA of changing my phone number and password at the same time. Dumb. The company’s fraud bots locked me out and the only way to unlock it was to send proof of my legal address in the States, which I wouldn’t have until I got to Indiana.

So I went the old-fashioned route –a human-based travel agency and cash payment.

But which one? My friend Isabella’s friendly security guard offered to help, but all he did was try to do the travel agency work himself online, which I had already done with better success, I might add. Not only that, he seemed more willing to talk to the pretty Chinese girl than the middle-aged guy about the whole thing. Can’t imagine why.

(Putting on my grumpy old man hat now: our specific request was, could he recommend a local travel agency near Isabella’s apartment complex? Did he follow through with that request? Of course not. Too easy. We were near effing Wilshire Boulevard, which is teeming with travel agencies. I assumed a local guy could suggest one. Instead, he tried to play the hero and found a fare online with Southwest Airlines for more than $800. Thanks, buddy. Stick to being a security guard.)

A little googling turned up a nearby agency, Senator Travel, that had some glowing recommendations. My agent Evelyn found me a better flight for half Mr. Security Guard’s that fit my timetable perfectly. Of course, since I had wasted a day fiddling with the CC company, the price had gone up by almost $100.

But at least I had a way to O’Hare. My vacation schedule had only three non-negotiable appointments: arrival, departure and the graduation Aug. 6. Fortunately, I had a big enough budget to compensate for such undue surprises. (An important piece of advice for travelers. Have enough money to recover from unhappy surprises.) With a definite flight out, I could enjoy the rest of my stay in LA and also calm my daughter, who was going to pick me up on her way from Iowa to Indiana.

Post-graduation: This part was also unplanned, since I and my son had earlier had no idea what would happen after the weekend. As it turned out, he was going to start a new job in just a week and would have to move. So for various reasons, I ended up at my former in-law’s house in southern Indiana for a few days. A day after I arrived, we five were joined by five more, as my niece’s power had gone out and her family and a freezer full of food needed a place to stay for two nights. So we had a little impromptu family reunion. I spent more time with six of my nieces, grandnieces and nephew than I had guess I ever had before. I am grateful that they are all really wonderful kids. Things could have been a lot worse.

Friday was the designated departure time. I had booked a hotel room near O’Hare for the night before. My son, who superhumanly was also moving into his new digs the same day, had offered to drive me to the airport — a five-hour drive. (This meant he was going to criss-cross Indiana four times in one day. Ah, youth!) Thanks to I got a sweet deal on a room which I booked online with my now working credit card.

We got there at 2 am. I had called twice on the road to make sure they would hold the room. Both times the ever-cheerful night clerk assured me there was no problem. (I concluded after dealing with this woman that her cheerfulness quotient far exceeded her actual helpfulness quotient.) At no time did she mention, gee golly, the hotel was actually overbooked. So, we arrived only to find that our room in the cushy hotel was not available but another would be provided AT NO CHARGE at the nearby Comfort Inn. A step down in star-rating, but a free room with free breakfast. OK. I can live with that.

So, we finally crashed for the night. I only had enough time for four and a half hour’s sleep, so I left my son and his girlfriend to sleep in while I dragged my sleepy self to the terminal on the free shuttle. There were no other surprises, even from the dreaded TSA, who waved me and a college girl through the body scanner on our way to terminal E, which is about halfway to Wisconsin. I swear O’Hare gets bigger every time I pass through.

My next destination was Shanghai, via Tokyo Narita Airport. While I have passed through Shanghai several times, this would be my first real visit, with two student friends as guides.

Shanghai and the trip home
Aug. 26, 2011

SHANGHAI – I’ve been to Shanghai before, but only to its airports. Taking a shuttle bus from one airport to another doesn’t count as visiting a city. This time I decided to fly into Shanghai, hang out for a few days (money permitting), then take the train back to Hunan. Two friends were there also, so I had some guides to help me along.

By this time, I’m almost an old hand in Beijing, having visited several times now. The travel books say Beijing and Shanghai are both immense, crowded cities, but there the similarities end. It’s like comparing Washington, D.C., with New York City.

This city has a completely different feel from Beijing. While Beijing is steeped with hundreds of years of history, Shanghai is a relative upstart, imbued with just over a century of international wheeling dealing. Western dominance of Shanghai ended decades ago, but the West never really ever left. Maybe that’s why Shanghai feels more cosmopolitan and “with-it” than Beijing, which is no slacker either.

The Shanghai World Financial Center behind the Jin Mao Tower

The Shanghai World Financial Center behind the Jin Mao Tower

Both cities have public transport systems that put most American cities to shame. The subways are fairly clean and efficient, and easy to navigate. I had more trouble navigating the LA Metro than I did with the Shanghai Metro. In Shanghai, it’s at least more obvious which side of the platform to stand on to get to your destination. Signage in LA is minimal, or maybe more impressionistic

I did the typical touristy things, visiting the Bund (Wai Tan), the Pudong skyscraper district, where I rode to the 100th floor of John Bunyan’s bottle opener, the World Financial Center, and Yuyuan Bazaar, which offers a smorgasbord of Chinese food and handcrafts. Time did not permit visiting Yuyuan Gardens or the Temple of the City God, both nearby.

But I also chilled for a morning in a nearby Starbucks for the WiFi availability, visited the Zheng Da Shopping Mall in Pudong and walked around the neighborhood of my hotel, which was conveniently right next to a Metro stop. I also successfully navigated my way to the train station to buy my ticket. (It took an hour by subway from my hotel. Shanghai is a bit big.)

For my return to Hunan, I opted to take the high speed train to Wuhan, a six-hour ride, and then hop another bullet train to Changsha, a 90-minute ride. The regular trains cover the same distance in 15-18 hours, and are invariably booked up days in advance. Since the high speed trains do not accept standees and cost more, there is not a crush of humanity vying for tickets. I went to Hongqiao Station on Tuesday and got a ticket for Thursday. On a lark, I decided to get a first-class ticket to Wuhan for 335 yuan (about $50), having never traveled first class in my life. (Well, one time I got bumped into a first-class seat on an airplane trip, only because coach was overbooked. This was in the dim times, when US airlines treated passengers less like cattle and more like people.) The first class seats are roomier and more comfy. Second class seats are not bad either, about the same as an airliner seat but with more legroom and slightly wider spacing. Truthfully, the second-class seats are just as good as the first-class ones, so the extra money was a bit of a waste.

The eventual goal of China’s high speed rail is to connect the provincial capitals with the megalopolises and other important cities. My first train covered just over 800 km (500 miles) in nearly 6 hours, stopping in Nanjing and Hefei, and smaller cities, and terminating in Wuhan. There are three train stations in Wuhan; the newest one (Wuhan station) handles mostly the traffic on the Shanghai-Wuhan route. Wuchang station is one terminus of the Wuhan-Guangzhou bullet train. Hankou station handles mostly regular train traffic.

In an ideal world, it would be easy to get from Wuhan station to Wuchang station. But that ease is not in place yet. Wuhan is building its own subway (as is Changsha), but so far it’s just big holes in the ground disrupting surface traffic. You can take a bus (#540) from one station to the other, but it’s not an express bus and it takes an hour or more to traverse Wuhan. Since I arrived around rush hour, with two heavy bags, I decided a taxi was a wiser choice.

The Wuhan-Guangzhou bullet train runs every hour, which seems like overkill until you count how many people live in China. As it is, those trains are nearly full for every run. I figured that, even without a reservation, I could book a ticket on one of several evening trains and still get to Changsha before 10 pm. Good guess. I asked for my ticket at 5:45 pm, and the agent gave me a ticket for the 6:10 train. (Cost was 165 yuan, or about $25.)

Top speed on this train is 330 km/hr (206 mph), the same as for the trains that collided near Wenzhou a few weeks ago. The railway temporarily slowed all the bullet trains to a maximum speed of 250 km/hr after the accident, pending an investigation of the causes of the accident. (Poorly designed signaling systems are the ostensible cause, but some riders suspect shoddy implementation, too.) In any event, my train hit 330 km/hr on its way to Changsha.

In Changsha, I did a little shopping (good quality lightweight hiking shoes for $30 and a leather shoulder bag suitable for toting a 7-inch Android tablet and other stuff for $40), but mostly just rested a day before taking the bus to Jishou. My five weeks of living out of a suitcase were coming to an end (as was my travel money cache), and I was ready for a couple of weeks of stationary life before classes start. Homeward bound was I.

A map to accompany the previous post
Aug. 29, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’m not sure if inserting the map in the previous will show up in Facebook Notes, so I made it a separate post.

Courtesy of Google Maps and some amateur Photoshopping, here is the route I took. Shanghai is at center right and Changsha is bottom left. Jishou is off the map, to the left (west) of Changsha. The route represents about 1,200 km (740 miles) of rail travel in 9 hours, including an hour of transfer time between the two Wuhan railway stations.

High speed rail route

High speed rail route

There is a handy English language website,, that keeps a comprehensive, up-to-date search engine for Chinese trains. I use it to plan my travel and to specify which train I want when I buy tickets at the ticketing office. This map of the Chinese rail system is from

China Railway Map

China Railway Map, from

Take two tablets, and call me in the morning
Aug. 26, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Come listen, children, to this story of transpacific electronics shopping.

I haven’t quite graduated to be a wholesale exporter of electronic goods, but it seems every time I visit the USA, I end up being a courier of some sort of assorted gadgetry. This time, I even bought one for myself.ipad-envy11-300x209

Last trip, I brought two media players from China to the USA as gifts. These Android-powered “MP5’s” cost about $45, play movies, music, etc., on a 4.5-inch touch screen, and are very popular among Chinese students. It seems they’re also popular in the US, since I had a request to bring three more with me on this trip.

Ditto my iPad courier service. On my winter trip, I picked up an iPad for a friend in China, and got to play with it for two weeks before I handed it over. This time, I had to get an iPad2 for his cousin.

While I was in Beijing, I visited the Zhongguancun district, where scores of computer and electronics shops huddle in several malls. Unlike American malls, most shops in China that sell similar merchandise are clustered near each other, making shopping and bargaining really easy for the consumer. I figured this was the best place to pick up the MP5’s (the brand name is Bmorn, model BM-581). We found a shop with good prices, but it was pretty busy. My friend Alex played with her iPad while I noodled around the Android tablets on display.

Before my winter trip, I sort of sneered at the whole iPad phenomenon. My experience with Windows-based tablets did not exactly win me over to the future of tablets, but I did like the touchscreen features of my long-gone Palm Treo.

Then I got to play with my friend’s iPad. It changed my mind pretty quickly. It was easy to use, and I could see how it would be a lot more convenient than lugging around my brick of a Lenovo notebook or squinting at the tiny screen of my Nokia e63 to read my emails or surf the Internet. A few disadvantages restrained my enthusiasm. First was the cost. Five hundred bucks is just a bit much when you consider I already have a smartphone, a MP5 media player and a notebook computer. (Which I usually leave at home, due to its heft.) I had some trouble adjusting my typing reflexes to the touchscreen’s virtual keyboard. And for some reason, even when I had a strong WiFi signal, the iPad would inexplicably drop the connection.

So, I decided, thanks but no thanks. My friend can have his iPad. No gadget envy there.

Well, meanwhile, I had read about Android tablets, since my stepson was keen on getting one. These are cheaper and have the look and feel of an iPad without the traditional high Apple price point. But I really hadn’t seen anything cheaper than about $300, which was still too high for my budget.

Yuandao N10 Android tablet

Yuandao N10 Android tablet

Back to the noodling at the Beijing shop. One of the models on display was a 7-inch tablet that seemed pretty good. Startup seemed to take an agonizing length of time, but once it finished booting, it was pretty responsive. So, I had to ask how much it cost … $150.

My brain went into budget-busting mode. Having the tablet would make surfing the Internet, checking email and so on easier than using my phone. The screen was bigger than my Bmorn media player, so I could see my movies easier. And it was small enough to slip into the small shoulder bag I use to carry my travel documents and what not when I’m traveling.

So I bought two. One for me, and one for the stepson hankering for one.

Here’s some details about it. The manufacturer is a Shenzhen-based company, YuanDao (原道), model N10. But it’s an OEM item marketed under other brand names. I found one at for $200 with the moniker “Mach Speed Trio Droid 7 Internet Tablet.”

It runs Android 2.3 on a 1GHz Rockchip CPU, has 512 MB operating memory and 8 GB storage space, which is expandable with a microSD card. It has WiFi, Ethernet and Bluetooth built in, and can connect to 3G networks. There are two mini-USB ports, headphone connection and a 1.3 MP front-facing camera.

I’m pretty happy with it, despite its even smaller virtual keyboard. I’m still getting used to Android, which just seems less polished than iOS, but after three weeks nothing really bad has happened. I guess I’ve joined the tablet generation.

My latest Daily Kos diary makes the Community Spotlight
Aug. 31, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — More personal horn tooting here — I wrote a longish diary for Daily Kos about my experiences here after three years, and it made the Community Spotlight.

I made the Community Spotlight at dKos!

I made the Community Spotlight at dKos!

As of right now (1:30 am EST), it’s had 58 comments since I posted it yesterday. And its plea for foreign teachers has netted three responses so far. Not bad for a couple hours of work.

I’m without Facebook … again
Aug. 31, 2011

UPDATE 1/9/11 5:30 am ET — Nevermind. As soon as I wrote this post, by a corollary to Murphy’s Law, everything started working again.

JISHOU, HUNAN — My favorite method to climb the Great Firewall of China seems to no longer work. So, my only access to FB right now is eBuddy on my cellphone for Chat and this blog’s feed into Notes. I do get emails whenever someone comments on a note or sends me a message, though.

I had been using Ultrareach‘s Ultrasurf, a 1-MB program that sets up a proxy connection to “climb the Wall,” as they say here, and evade China’s Internet censorship. It establishes a proxy connection as before, but as soon as I enter a URL, the connection is lost. I suspect the Net Nannies here have gotten wise to Ultrasurf and figured out a way to block it, as they did the Tor proxy network two years ago.

So, if you’re expecting me to learn about news from family and friends via FB, think again. Ya might just have to write me an email once in a while.

Oh, and FB recoded their site again, so the plugin I have that pulls comments on FB Notes into WordPress is broken again. It uses the mobile FB site, so I have no clue what’s up with that.

Of reverse culture shock: ‘Where’s the chopsticks?’
Sept. 1, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — You’ve all heard of culture shock, but for someone who has lived abroad for some time, it works the other way, too: reverse culture shock.

It works like this. You move to a different country (hell, you could move to a different state and still feel culture shock) and live there for several months, or years. At the beginning, everything is new, or weird, and you experience culture shock. How you expect the world/society/people/friends/lovers should behave is completely different from what you have experienced in the past. Successful ex-patriates revel in the new milieu and move on. Others go bonkers and move back to the States as soon as possible.

Assuming you’re the type who stays, eventually the new cultural milieu becomes second nature to you. As a trivial example, I no longer expect to see a knife, fork and spoon alongside my plate at a restaurant. In most Chinese eateries, you get a pair of plastic chopsticks in a paper or plastic envelope and a set of ceramic dishes with a ceramic soup spoon shrink-wrapped in plastic. (Most restaurants outsource their dish washing to a third party, who cleans and sterilizes everything and seals it in plastic.) In addition, every table gets a pot of tea or hot water. And rarely, you also get a packet of paper napkins or at less upscale places, a plastic container with a roll of tissue paper inside. (Kleenex on the cob, as a former student — Emily Plant, was it you? — once described it).

Since high school, I have associated Chinese food with chopsticks. In fact, I learned how to eat with chopsticks while in high school, which always surprises my Chinese acquaintances. I made a conscious choice to only use chopsticks for eating here. In my apartment, I have lots of chopsticks, since I often have guests over for meals, but just one fork (which I only acquired a few months ago), two table knives and four western-style spoons. After three years nearly continuous use, using chopsticks has become second nature.

So, when I come back to the USA, part of my brain automatically looks for the chopsticks, and there’s a momentary glitch when another part of my brain, “Hey, stupid! You’re in America now.” I can still use a knife, fork and spoon, of course, but part of me still wants to use chopsticks.

That’s an example of reverse culture shock. A trivial one, but it happens to me every time I come back. I have to deliberately switch mental gears.

Here’s a bigger problem. Public transportation in the USA sucks, big time. In China, I don’t need a car. There are so many taxis, buses, trains and drivers-for-hire at affordable prices that having a car would be just a luxury, not a necessity.

But try navigating from, say, Los Angeles, to somewhere not directly served by air service, like, say, Lafayette, Indiana. LA has an OK public transportation system — though the Metro could be signed more clearly — so getting around without a car is feasible. Getting to LAX is also no problem. Getting from Chicago to Lafayette is not.

My first plan was to take Amtrak from LA to Lafayette, but the cost ($600+) and the time involved put me off the idea. Riding Greyhound was another, cheaper option, but spending several days in a bus is not my cup of tea. I couldn’t rent a car because of my credit card glitch, so flying was the only option.

And as I found out, the only way for me to get from and to O’Hare was by car, my children’s cars. In other words, in China I can be an independent traveler sans car. In the USA, without a rental car, I have to rely on others to provide transport, because alternatives just don’t exist (except for Greyhound). And that frankly drives me a little batty.

On the other hand, I appreciate the American habit of punctuality, which many Chinese just don’t understand, especially those in the upper echelons of management. I have often been at events that start 30 minutes or more late because we have to wait for some mucky-muck to tear himself away from some other face-making event. For leaders in China, appointment times are advisory only, not mandatory. I wonder how government works in Beijing.

Likewise, getting repairs done in a timely manner is lot more possible in the States than it seems to be here. Having lived in South Africa for a year, I know about “Africa time,” which means things will get done when they get done, as the Fates allow. Well, it works the same way in China. I had no Internet service in my flat for three days, because the simple task of restarting a network switch was not a priority task for the campus IT crew. (They advised me to restart the switch myself, but since it’s locked up in a metal security box downstairs, the advice was useless to me.)

Adaptability and patience are the keys here. If little things stress you out, don’t try living in a very different culture. You’ll end up hating it, and yearn for the first chance to go home. If you can let the little things pass you by, and accept the bigger challenges as just part of life, you’ll do fine.

From What life is like for Chinese high school students
Sept. 2, 2011

One of the staff writers at has written a poignant and illuminating essay about his experience as a high school (senior middle, in local parlance) school student.

Here’s an excerpt describing the typical day in a Chinese high school. Contrast his description with life in your own high school.

I have to say that high school is a monastery and an army boot camp combined. Eleven classes every day. We had to rise before dawn and went to bed after 11. After the last class, we were encouraged to use any bit of extra time for study. There was one student who would go to read his lessons every night in the toilet, because that was the only place where the light would be kept on 24 hours. Everyone hated him, because his breach of a delicate equilibrium that is vital for us to live in peace with each other — he studied just a little too hard. The school encouraged us to be frugal with our time. It had a slogan hanging from the main building: “Time is like water in sponge; if you squeeze harder, there is always more.”

And contemplate this paragraph about the possible consequences of tying teacher pay to students’ performance on standardized tests.

It was not only the students dealing with a lot of stress, but the teachers as well. A teacher’s salary was determined by how many of the students that they were responsible for went to university. Even the school principal would be evaluated on such statistics. At my junior year, a girl committed suicide. Not a big surprise. There are always weak ones who just can’t make it. That is how natural selection works. The cause of the suicide was that the girl’s head teacher asked her to forgo the college entrance exam. Not that he hated her personally. He simply talked to all the students who were deemed hopeless and would only dilute the average results of the class. The girl refused. The teacher told the girl something that must have been very humiliating, and she drowned herself in the sea that afternoon.

It’s a different world here for students, folks. College is a picnic in comparison to the final three years of secondary education.

High technology eating
Sept. 16, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had to upgrade my cell phone today in order to eat tomorrow. In a real life analogy to upgrading to Windows N+1 or OS X+I, in order to buy a meal, I had to upgrade my hardware.

Naturally, there were compatibility problems.

There were some major changes to the main university dining hall this summer. The second floor got new tables and chairs, new serving lines and (bless us all) air conditioners. The other big change was, beginning this week, we can no longer pay cash for our meals.

Previously, there were two payment options: good old fashioned cash money and the SIM cards in our cellphones. Most students paid with their phones. Each serving line had a “wave-and-pay” near-field reader: hold your phone against the reader and the meal cost is deducted from your account. It’s a pay-as-you-go arrangement, so students periodically have to refill their accounts at the dining hall or cellphone office.

I, however, just used cash, because I eat less often at the dining hall (also known as the canteen here) than the students do. But that option ended this week. After a two-week transition period of requiring us Luddites to buy meal tickets at the door, the university switched completely to the wave-and-pay system.

For four days, I relied on my forgiving students to pay for my meals with their phones, but today decided it was time to get on the bandwagon. So, my colleague Gordon Ye and I went to the dining hall office to set my phone up.

Except it didn’t work. While my phone is only two years old, the SIM card is older, and not compatible with the payment system. Time to upgrade! Fortunately, there is a China Mobile office on campus, so we headed over there to get a spanking new SIM card for my Nokia.

As with any other upgrade, it always takes 10 times longer than you expect to get it to work. First, the tech said the phone couldn’t accept the new card. I replied several students had the same model phone, and had no problems. He tried again. Success! (But I had to disable my security app twice.) Then I had to drop 100 yuan into my phone account — not so bad, since China Mobile is offering a “pay 100 yuan, get minutes worth 500 yuan” deal for the fall term — and wait for the salesclerk to work her magic on the computer terminal. Then we went to another part of the office to set up the wave-and-pay system on the new SIM card.

Again, there were some small glitches. Another tech asked us what my four-digit employee payroll number is.

“Well, I don’t have one.”
“How does the university pay you, then?”
“Direct deposit, but the Foreign Affairs Office makes those arrangements, not the payroll office.”

I gathered that everyone, except the foreign teachers, apparently has a four-digit number that accompanies their university account. An employee has one for payroll deposits; a student has one for deductions from his or her bank account for tuition and other fees. Gordon worked something out with the tech, and in a few more minutes, my SIM was being programmed and soon had 100 yuan on it for eating at the canteen. (That’s enough for about 25 meals, by the way.)

The entire process, from dining hall to mobile phone office, took two hours. Quicker than upgrading Windows, anyway.

Chinese authorities pull the plug on Hunan TV talent shows
Sept. 19, 2011

Duan Linxi, 2011 Super Girl winner

The party's over: Duan Linxi may be the last Hunan Super Girl

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of the most popular TV shows on Hunan Satellite TV (HSTV) have been a succession of American Idol-style talent shows collectively called “Super Girl” and “Super Boy” competitions. But no longer: the national media regulatory agency has told HSTV to cease production of the shows, claiming the network exceeded the time limit imposed for such shows.

“We received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012”, Li Hao, deputy editor-in-chief and spokesman of the channel, diplomatically told the China Daily.

In other words, viewers can no longer call in and vote for their favorite performers. That might be too democratic.

“Hunan Satellite Television will obey the State regulator’s decision and will not hold similar talent shows next year. Instead, the channel will air programs that promote moral ethics and public safety and provide practical information for housework,” Li said.

In other words, we were told to produce the same old, mind-numbingly boring crap that China Central TV (CCTV) broadcasts already, in between patriotic movies about the Revolution and the Japanese Occupation.

Hunan TV has a reputation in China of being more “edgy” and contemporary than CCTV. It has successfully adapted game shows from Japan and programs from America (like Ugly Betty and American Idol) for Chinese audiences. The Super Girl/Super Boy competitions have been aired on HSTV in one form or another 2004. As with Idol winners and runners-up, their Chinese counterparts have gone on to clinch record deals, movie and TV gigs, and an active fan base.

HSTV milks the Super-person shows for every last bit of pathos and suspense. This year’s Super Girl contest started with 500 performers (all singers of some sort), who competed in provincial and regional contests for four months before a whittled-down core group landed on the first national broadcast in July.

The first program was supposed to run for a mandated 92-minute limit. Instead, it ran 90 minutes over the cap imposed by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Later episodes also ran over, but not to such a great extent. Despite their length (and the tedium of listening to scores of not-very-talented performers), it attracted millions of viewers away from more “wholesome” programming, which is probably why the SARFT clamped down.

From the China Daily article:

In 2007, SARFT took several moves to regulate talent shows, including banning TV talent shows in prime time (7:30 pm to 10:30 pm) and limiting the duration of each episode to no more than 90 minutes.

[An] anonymous staff member also said that the ratings for the contest this year “kept being higher than other TV programs of its kind”.

“For me, exceeding the time limit is just an excuse to shut down the TV program, and there would have been other excuses even if the TV station did not make the shows that long,” said Jin Yong, a researcher at the Communication University of China.

“I believe the reason that forced the administration to ‘regulate’ this program is that some television hosts in the program made inappropriate comments and some did not dress properly,” Jin said.

“The style might have offended some older viewers, so that the authority warned the TV station with the suspension order to make their program classier.”

Short version: Simon Cowell would have been deported within a day if he had been one of the judges.

Super Boy performers were also advised to sing only “healthy and ethically inspiring” songs (as in, boooorrrring) and producers were to avoid showing screaming fans and teary-eyed losers.

Li Yuchun in 2010

Li Yuchun in 2010

Former Super Girls/Boys have ruffled a few feathers among the staid members of society here. One notable example was 2005’s Lǐ Yǔchūn 李宇春, a native of Sichuan province, whose boyish clothes, short, spiky hair, and aggressive singing style captivated audiences — especially girls and young women — while aggravating more conservative Chinese.

[True confession: I like Lǐ’s style a lot. Her English name is Chris Lee. Naturally she has both Facebook and MySpace pages. Check ’em out.]

This year’s surprise winner, Duàn Línxī 段林希, from Yunnan, also does not fit the mold of the “ideal Chinese female singer.” If Lǐ was too punky, Duan is too reserved and un-star-like. With enormous black-framed glasses, an acoustic guitar and low-key songs, she was more like a cross between Scooby-doo’s Vera and Judy Collins than a Sheryl Crow rocker, but her fanbase helped her net first prize.

The Chinese government closely regulates the media here, and Hunan TV has had run-ins with SARFT before. Clearly, the message from the “feds” is to present a more uniform, “harmonious” form of entertainment, with little spontaneity and counter-cultural role models — the very reasons that viewers (like me) tune into to such otherwise mindless entertainment.

Next step, actual flames …
Oct. 7, 2011

Somehow, yelling  "Flame on!" just doesn't work

Somehow, yelling “Flame on!” just doesn’t work

Human Torch

But it works for the Human Torch.

SANGZHI, HUNAN — OK, so I’m not really Johnny Storm, but it’s a cool photo, anyway. My friend snapped it as we were leaving Jiutian Cave here. After a long climb out of the cool, humid cave into the warm, drier surface air, I was sweating and my head was literally steaming.

The cave trip Thursday was my last excursion for the week-long National Holiday. Earlier in the week, I accompanied two friends (a young married couple) to a wedding in Huarong, a small city near Yueyang, Hunan. Then they drove me to Yueyang, where I met another friend and visited that city for two days. When I came back to Jishou on Wednesday, I literally turned right around and headed out again to Sangzhi with another friend, her cousin, aunt and uncle.

We also visited the reconstructed home of He Long, a revolutionary leader who was later purged during the Cultural Revolution. He was thrown into prison (where he died at age 74), his original home was razed, and his siblings were prevented from attending university. He didn’t get a formal state burial until 40 years after his death.

On our way back to Jishou, we stopped at a roadside marker for the Guzhang County “Golden Spike” — an international reference point for the sedimentary layer corresponding to stage 7* of the Cambrian Period beginning 503 million years ago. The rather elaborate marker includes relief images of Lejopyge laevigata trilobites, which made their first appearance at this time.

Interestingly enough, I live near another Golden Spike for the next stage of the Cambrian, about 499 million years ago, when Glyptagnostus reticulatus trilobotes first made their appearance. That Golden Spike is in Paibi, in Huayuan, the county just west of Jishou.

* Stage 7 apparently has two names: Guzhangian and Dresbachian (for a town in Minnesota). During the Cambrian Period, of course, such names had no meaning, since there was only one big continent (Gondwanaland) and a few smaller landmasses.

Members of the Dogg family, together at last (sorta)
Oct. 7, 2011

Snoop and Wheat, together at last

Snoop and Wheat, together at last

This photo is from August, when I visited Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in LA. Somehow teaching classes got in the way of posting it.

Finally, a quiet, normal weekend in Hunan
Oct. 15, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s the weekend and I finally have time to blog. So here goes …

October 1 is China’s National Holiday, rather like the Fourth of July. We got a week-long vacation, which I spent traveling to nearby places in Hunan. Officially, the National Holiday is only five days long, but universities typically move weekday classes to the following weekend to extend the holiday. The downside of this reshuffling is needing to teach for seven days straight after a seven-day holiday.

That post-vacation marathon coincided with the beginning of classes for the freshmen, so I had 32 classes from the 8th until yesterday the 14th. Needless to say, I was a little drained by the time I finished teaching at noon yesterday. Next week, I’ll have a more manageable 22 classes in a week, a schedule I only need to keep until the new foreign teacher arrives in a few weeks.

My only plan for the holiday was to visit a friend in Yueyang 岳阳, several hours away by bus or train, and just north of the provincial capital, Changsha 长沙. A couple of days before the holiday started, I dropped by another friend’s shop in Jishou to say hello. We soon discovered we were heading in the same direction. Tina and her husband were driving to his hometown, Huarong 华容, for his sister’s wedding. If I didn’t mind hanging out for a couple of days at the wedding, I could come along, then they’d drive me to Yueyang, 30 minutes away.

So, Friday, Saturday and Sunday were spent in Huarong and Tianyi (the groom’s hometown, right by the Yangtze River (the Xiangjiang 长江) as part of a ginormous wedding party. Though it was the bride’s second marriage, it was still a big affair, with lots of food, baijiu, beer and fireworks.

Tina and Jeremy have been married almost two years. As part of his marriage promises, he had built a small house for the two of them in Huarong. That’s where we stayed Friday night. The next morning we had a big lunch with his side of the family, then drove to Tianyi for dinner with the groom’s side of the family. We stayed there overnight, and after a big brunch with what seemed to be half the town, we headed back to Huarong to fetch our stuff and drove to Yueyang.

The happy couple

The happy couple

Chinese weddings are a big, big deal. I’ve been to several now, and most have been two- to three-day affairs. While the couple have their share of stuff to do, most of the preparation is the responsibility of their many uncles, aunties, cousins and friends, who shepherd the guests around to dining rooms and sleeping quarters. It all seems to go smoothly, I guess because the whole shebang is planned months in advance.

Only one wedding I have attended (Tina and Jeremy’s) included an actual ceremony, during which the couple exchange vows. Most have involved traditional customs, such as bringing the bride ceremoniously to the groom’s home, often with an umbrella over her to ward off bad luck, or watching outside the bride’s bedroom as the groom petitions to see his fiancee, sometimes bargaining with cash “bribes” to her attendants to open the door. A Tujia custom, which I haven’t seen yet, is the wailing of the bride as she leaves her home. Traditionally, the longer and louder she cries to her parents, the more luck will come to the marriage.

The actual marriage occurs in a government office weeks or months before the actual celebration. The couple apply for a marriage license and pose together for an official photo to be affixed to their marriage document. There is no officiant, like a justice of the peace or judge. A clerk just signs off on a document attesting to the fact that Mr X and Miss Y are now husband and wife.

Some marriages are (ahem) quickened by a pregnancy, either planned or unplanned. The wedding party may even be delayed until after the baby is born, if circumstances require it. There is little of the approbrium that would accompany such scheduling in the USA, it seems. More important are the symbolic joining of two families and the birth of a child. The order of events is not so important.

After the wedding festivities, I spent another couple of days in Yueyang to hang out with a teacher friend there. We visited Junshan Island 君山岛, a scenic park in the middle of Dongting Lake, when the chilly rain that started the holiday week finally ended.

Junshan has a number of legends surrounding it. The name literally means Princesses’ Mountain island. The bamboo that grows on the island is unique — its stems are blotched with dark spots. Legends say that the Xiang River Goddesses, who had been daughters of the Emperor Yao (ca. 2356-2255 BC), cried when their husband, the Emperor Shun, died. Their tears fell on the bamboo, discoloring it forever.

Junshan Island bamboo

Junshan Island bamboo

Another legend surrounds Liu Yi’s Well. It is said that Liu Yi was a Tang Dyanasty (618-907) scholar who rescued the Dongting Lake Dragon Princess from her cruel husband. Liu and the Princess became lovers against the Dragon King’s wishes, communicating secretly through the well on Junshan Island. The water from the well is especially clear and sweet; locals use it for brewing an island specialty, silver-needle tea.

Silver-needle tea, which is exceptionally pricey, is a variety of green tea. When dried, the leaves roll up into little tubes. When hot water is poured over them, the leaves remain tightly rolled, and then sink stem-end down to the bottom of the cup. They look like a stand of pine trees.

After Yueyang, I came back to Jishou midweek to avoid the holiday crush on the trains and buses. On the way, I got an invitation to visit Sangzhi 桑植, a county near the tourist city of Zhangjiajie 张家界, two hours from Jishou. Sangzhi has two principal tourist sites: the home of the revolutionary He Long and JiuTian Cave. We visited both.

He Long was a contemporary of Mao Zedong, also a Hunan native. After the founding of Communist China in 1949, He Long became a high ranking member of the government, but his progressive ideas ran him afoul of the party members responsible for the Cultural Revolution. He was imprisoned in 1966 as a counter-revolutionary, and died at age 74 three years later, still in prison. It wasn’t until 2009, forty years after his death, that He Long was given an official state funeral and burial. His home in Sangzhi is now a national shrine, and a small museum has been built alongside it.

JiuTian Cave is advertised as China’s “Number 1” cave, but in fact it’s not the largest or longest. It’s the fourth karst cave I’ve visited in this part of China, and I have to say the previous three, especially HuangLong Cave in Zhangjiajie, are better. They all feature garish multi-colored lighting and formations that resemble animals, vegetables or famous figures in history and legend. On the day we visited, the cave was as usual cool and damp, but the air above was warm and dry. So, when I emerged from climbing up a long set of stairs, the sunlight caught the cloud of steam rising from my head. I ran that photo a few days ago.

I was back in Jishou the next day, giving me a day to recuperate, wash my clothes and prepare for the eight classes I had to teach on Saturday. I’ll write about my marathon week of teaching in the next post.

Meeting the freshmen
Oct. 16, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — The trade-off for a week-long National Holiday break this year was seven days straight of teaching, including my first meetings with the 109 freshmen who have enroled in our college.

Unlike American colleges, universities usually bring in their freshmen after everyone else has arrived. At our uni, they arrive during the second week of classes, then have two weeks of military training — mostly formation drills, physical training, and practice with mercifully unloaded rifles. Then we all take off for the National Holiday.

Originally, I was not scheduled to teach the freshmen, but we didn’t start the year with two foreign teachers. My dean rather timidly asked me if I would consider taking on additional classes to help the college out. I agreed to take on oral English for the frosh, which added six classes to my load. If Chinese students need any instruction, it’s in spoken English. I figured missing even a few weeks of class with a foreign teacher would hold them back even further.

Besides, taking on the freshmen means, at least for this term, I will have taught every student in our college at least once.

So, what is this crop of first-years like? Enthusiastic, to say the least. They all seemed to be on pins and needles waiting to meet me, since for most I am the first foreigner they have ever met. The last group I taught (an all-girl class of 43) whipped out their cellphones during the break and took turns photographing each other with me. Others asked me to sign their textbooks. Amazing. Now if I could just get that movie deal …

Their first assignment was for each to come to the front of the room to give a brief self-introduction: name, hometown and what they want to learn, and anything else they want to offer. I had the class rosters, and had earlier painstakingly transcribed the hanzi (characters) into pinyin so I could call them up randomly by name. At least that was the process for the first two classes I met. The third, the all-girl class of English education majors, came up on their own one by one after one student told me she was ready and wanted to go first.

Predictably, their confidence and speaking skills are all over the map. Most Chinese students are petrified to speak to foreigners, not because they are naturally shy, but because they fear making a grammar or pronunciation mistake, or being unintelligible. [If you are a tourist in China, and a young person is peering at you with a look of expectancy, they are probably trying to work up the courage to greet you. If they succeed, compliment them for their courage, and if suitable, their speaking skills.] English majors are no exception, especially those who have never had a foreign teacher or contact with tourists.

To lessen their anxiety, I gave them 10 minutes to prepare their remarks. Some chose to write down their self-introduction, others quietly rehearsed what they would say, a few went up and gave impromptu remarks. The results were better than I expected. Maybe it’s me, but the freshmen’s speaking skills seem to improve each year. Or maybe this group is exceptional.

Most of them hail from Hunan, but one student is from Sichuan, the province to the west, and another from Inner Mongolia, which is a “fur piece” from here. I have two groups of Business English students (four-year bachelor candidates) and one of education majors (three-year certificate candidates). They are overwhelmingly female, which has been the trend in our college since I’ve been here. (For that matter, it was also true of the Comparative Lit department at Princeton 35 years ago. Probably still is.) There are all sorts of reasons for the gender disparity, ranging from cultural to developmental, but it does make for rather pleasant working conditions. (Though it makes it really hard to field an intramural men’s basketball or football team …)

Meanwhile, the seniors, whom I do not teach this term to my great disappointment, are anxious about several potentially life-changing events. One is the post-graduate exam, China’s equivalent to the GRE, which will be offered in January. Others are scouting for internships for the spring term, and/or employment after graduation. There is a national Japanese exam coming up in December, and they all have to face the Test for English Majors – band 8 (TEM8) in the spring. None of these exams are walks in the park, so most of the seniors would just as soon skip all their classes (12 a week) to hit the books in the library or surf the ‘Net for jobs. The exams are only offered once a year, and English majors may take the TEM8 only twice, so there is little room for failure.

As I’ve written before, American students have no idea of the intense pressure Chinese students live with. There are about 200 million Chinese attending university each year. That’s two-thirds the population of the USA. These millions are competing for jobs, spots in master’s and doctoral programs, and the future of their families. The exams are the gatekeepers, so it’s SOP for seniors to spend all day in the library preparing for the tests.

When failure does happen, the feeling is catastrophic. As an example, I will relate the story of G., a senior who has failed TEM4 twice. The TEM4 scores came out four weeks ago on a Wednesday. As with the TEM8, English majors just have two cracks at this exam. G.’s score was four points below passing, and she disappeared from view for five days. Mortified by her second failure, G. retreated to her home, all but convinced that her dream of going to postgraduate study was gone forever.

To be frank, G. is not a strong student, but she has a lot of potential. Her English grammar is atrocious, but her writing and speaking skills have made several quantum jumps since freshman year. She works hard, conscious of her weaknesses, and has set her sights on studying linguistics at Zhongnan University, one of the best schools in China. Perhaps the goal is little too high, like a C-student hoping for admission to Princeton, but not impossible in her case. As long as she doesn’t blow the postgrad exam.

I met G. for dinner on a Friday, two days after the TEM4 results came out. She put on a brave face at first, but after an hour was in tears. It seems she has failed nearly every major examination in her academic career. She was convinced after taking the TEM4 the second time that she had passed it, but in fact she didn’t. There was some kind of equipment trouble during the listening portion of the test, so G. was not able to hear all the passages clearly. Through her tears, she confessed she was convinced she would probably also fail the postgrad exam and the TEM8, the possibility of which would leave her completely adrift. She has made no other plans other than to go on for further study.

I encouraged her as best I could, and offered whatever help I can. And the next day, G. sent me a text saying she had re-dedicated herself to prepare for the postgrad exam, no matter what the final result may be.

Over that dinner date, we touched on an interesting cultural difference. One of her teachers, Prof W. had expressed surprise that G. had chosen Zhongnan University, and had bluntly told G. her chances of admission were next to zero. (G. apparently had no idea Zhongnan was so hard to get into, which I can fully understand. I was as ignorant of Princeton’s reputation when I was a junior in high school as G. was of Zhongnan’s.) On the one hand, G., who already has self-confidence issues, was absolutely crushed by Prof. W.’s frank assessment. On the other hand, she appreciated the advice.

G. then noted than both I and David, another foreign teacher at JiDa, both invariably encouraged our students, no matter what their abilities, and seldom told students they could not do anything. She asked why. To be honest, I didn’t have a ready response, since the question had never come to mind. After a couple of minutes, I told G. that I always encourage students to do their best and to accept challenges. I told her I knew she is not a strong student, but she works very hard and has made huge strides in the last three years. Further, I see no reason to point out her shortcomings, since she already knows them quite well, but saw every reason to tell her to try to overcome those shortcomings and seek her dream. Perhaps, I said, Americans and Englishmen are more optimistic about the future than Chinese; past failures do not always mean future ones.

We discussed another student, well known as one of the laziest in the senior class, who nonetheless plans to study abroad next year. Neither G. nor I could understand how this student, who studies very little and seems indifferent to receiving low marks, expected to succeed. In this student’s case, I told G., I would not be so encouraging and optimistic. But, people do change. Many students find China’s universities stifling. Studying in a Western university might inspire them to be better students. No one can predict the future.

So, there’s my teaching experience this month in a nutshell. Boundless enthusiasm among the freshmen; oppressing anxiety among the seniors. Every day a new challenge.

[ADDENDUM Jan. 11, 2015: G. sat the postgraduate exam again, and passed that time. She will graduate from Hunan Normal University this June.]

Google+ offers end run around (over?) Great Firewall of China
Nov. 1, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Maybe my problems with Picasaweb are over for now. While the Great Firewall of China seems to screw up uploads to my Picasaweb albums, it doesn’t seem to prevent uploads using Google+ Photos. It’s still snail slow, but at least I can get it done.

Then again, my access to Google+ seems to come and go, so I probably just shot myself in the foot publishing this tidbit of news.

Now I can tweet ,too!
Nov. 5, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — By way of this post at China Geeks, I can now use my phone in China to send texts to my Twitter account. It seems there is a Chinese service,, that allows its users to feed fanfou posts to an existing Twitter account.

Of course, whether I remember to use it remains an open question. I haven’t developed a Twitter habit, since direct access to it is blocked in China. Another issue is this work-around only works in one direction. I can send tweets out, but I can’t read comments or replies.

Meanwhile, I noticed that my blog posts were not automatically being tweeted. In the process of updating a plugin, I managed to disable the automatic feed. So, this is a test of that, too.

You win some, you lose some
Nov. 9, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Anticipating the imminent arrival of another foreign teacher, I was looking forward to having more free time. I assumed he would teach the extra classes I picked up in his absence.

Never assume anything. That’s true in science, journalism, and working in China. Because the new guy was not here in September to teach the juniors’ Business English classes, he and the students have to make up the missed classes. So, his schedule is 16 classes of just teaching those students that one subject.

That means I will keep on teaching the freshmen, whom I was rather reluctant to give up, anyway. They were also not happy to lose me as their teacher this term. So, in that respect, it’s a win. (I also get paid extra for the extra classes, another winning point.)

On the negative side, I won’t have a respite from my busy teaching schedule. I have 22 classes a week, Monday through Friday, and on two of those days I need to commute to the old campus where the freshmen live. That’s a 20-minute shuttle-bus ride each way. Still, it’s fewer classes than I had as a high school teacher, so I can’t complain too much. And really, I am not complaining. I’m just a little chagrined — I miss those three-day weekends.

The Walmart-China synergy
Nov. 11, 2011

Map of Walmart in China

Map of Walmarts in China ©The Atlantic

JISHOU, HUNAN — The Atlantic Monthly has an interesting article about the surprising alliance between multinational corporation Walmart and China’s Communist government to improve product quality and foster environmental responsibility among the retailer’s estimated 1,000 Chinese suppliers.

China has been plagued by a series of food-safety scandals and environmental disasters in the last decade. Chinese shoppers no longer trust the products they buy are safe to eat. They trust foreign hypermarkets, like Walmart, Metro and Carrefour, more, and Walmart, for one, is playing that card to its advantage.

Walmart got all green and organic a few years ago, and has been trying to impose its more stringent requirements on its suppliers in China. Thought its prices may be higher for some products, concerned shoppers here are willing to pay extra for products labelled “green” and “organic,” because they trust Walmart is telling the truth.

Meanwhile, China’s central government, which has been woefully ineffective in monitoring regional and provincial food and environmental safety standards, benefits from Walmart’s quasi-governmental influence.

As the article infers, it’s a marriage of convenience that seems to benefit everyone concerned. I recommend reading the whole article. Walmart may treat its workers in the USA like crap, but in some respects it’s not entirely evil.

More examples of the jukebox in my head
Nov. 11, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — Every week, three of my Oral English students have to introduce three new words, phrases or idioms to their classmates. “Ferocious” was one that popped up last week, and “lunatic” came up last month.

Name that tune! Can you think of two popular songs using each of those words? I’ll wait.


Time’s up. Here’s what my internal jukebox coughed up.

For “ferocious,” Kim Carnes’ 1981 hit, “Bette Davis Eyes.” For “lunatic,” “You May Be Right,” by Billy Joel, from 1980. (I know, three ’80s hits in two posts. The jukebox seems stuck in that decade for now.) I used lyrics from both songs on recent vocabulary tests, and today I played “Bette Davis Eyes” for one class.

Kim Carnes’ singing is, I guess, an acquired taste I never acquired. My students were also unimpressed. Granted, the lyrics are clever, and lent themselves to an impromptu lesson on American idioms, but Carnes’ vocal style on that song gets on my nerves, like listening to a tone-deaf teenager singing karaoke.

[Factoid: Jackie DeShannon, co-writer of the song with Donna Weiss, is from Hazel, Kentucky.]

The Joel song, which I like more, had a better reception. I’ve even seen it on local KTV playlists, with a totally random background video featuring a girl in an evening dress walking around a European-looking city and boats sailing across a harbor. (Often, KTV lyrics are wrong, too. I’ve learned to trust my memory more than the karaoke subtitles.)

By the way, in case you’re wondering, Lady Gaga is big here, too. Many of my students already know the lyrics to “Poker Face.” As for me, I’ll take Gaga over Carnes any day.

Nov. 13, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had some time on my hands recently, so I spent it tweaking the website.

I’ve joined the China Blog Network, and you’ll see a widget linking to it in the right sidebar. One blog I’ve been spending time reading is Wok With Me, Baby, a cooking blog written by an ex-pat in Shanghai who cooks Western-style food with mostly locally available ingredients. Her chili recipe looks good.

I found a cool world map widget that shows visitors’ locations. I saw it at Respectful Insolence, a medical blog by the sharp-tongued skeptical Orac. Although I already have a Clustrmap, the spinning globe was too cool to pass up.

The Status Update plug-in doesn’t seem to be updating my Facebook status, but I’m not going to sweat it until Nov. 22, when FB shuts off RSS feeds to FB Notes. I’ve already discovered that tweets can be fed to FB status lines.

We had our first English Corner of the new school year today. A big crowd of mostly freshmen, who for some reason seem younger (several 17-year-olds among my students) and more geographically diverse than before. I’ve met several students from Xinjiang, in the far west of China, and the dining hall is now serving some halal food to accommodate the Muslims among them.

One of my seniors has been accepted to the University of Sheffield, and I expect other unis will send her offers. She applied to nearly 20 schools in the UK. I told her it was overkill, but what are you going to do?

The Chronicle of Higher Education Global edition has an interesting article, The China Conundrum, which describes the problems Chinese students and their American universities face as more and more Chinese come to the States for undergraduate study. The largest demographic among foreign students now is mainland Chinese, some of whom have fabricated their qualifications — especially their spoken English skills — to garner places in US universities.

I have discovered how to watch American TV shows on the Internet, so for the last several weeks I’ve been catching up the last four seasons of CSI. I know it’s too late to say it, but Laurence Fishburne did a great job in that show. Ted Danson is a surprising and welcome addition, though. I missed having an eccentric genius like William Petersen on board.

All for now.

Video of Jishou University: Mission part 1
Nov, 19, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — I find it amusing that this video is available on YouTube, which is not accessible from China. Parts 2 and 3 are also available at this link.

The video opens with scenes of the campus, including the main academic building, a computer room and exterior shots of the library. Here’s a rundown of what comes next.

About 2:00: Whitewater boating on the MengDong River, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Qianzhou ancient city
3:45: More scenes of Qianzhou, which is immediately south of Jishou
4:00-about 6:00: artist Huang YongYu, a native of FengHuang, a city about an hour from here. The university has a museum devoted to Huang’s works.
6:00: a steam locomotive (long retired) passing through the hills
6:15: scenes of rural life in XiangXi (western Hunan) prefecture, of which Jishou is the seat
7:00: Jishou and its history, the early university circa 1958
7:36: the original university building, now the home of the medical college at the old campus
7:50: construction of the new campus
9:00: one of the language labs (the instructor is Miss Liu, now director of the Public English Education department)
9:56: a shot of FengYu Lake, with the music building designed by Huang YongYu in the background; my college building is to the left, but not visible in this view
10:28: scenes of an Oral English class, led by a foreign teacher who predates me

Released from detention, Ai WeiWei still fights authority
Nov. 19, 2011

Chinese dissident artist Ai WeiWei

Ai WeiWei shows media his $2.4 million tax bill

JISHOU, HUNAN — Despite a lengthy detention, a crushing tax bill and continued harassment by Chinese authorities, dissident artist Ai WeiWei remains undaunted.

Ai was arrested in April for “economic crimes” and held in an undisclosed location for more than two months. Authorities claim Ai owes $2.4 million in back taxes, an accusation he disputes but is paying with the help of his fans. Now, he says one of his associates is being investigated on child pornography charges. Technically, Ai and his wife are under house arrest; he cannot leave Beijing, cannot write anything critical of the government and cannot talk to the media.

But he did anyway. Newsweek magazine carries an essay by Ai in which he describes Beijing as a “prison,” without referring specifically to his own quasi-imprisonment. We know what he means, though.

Beijing is two cities. One is of power and of money. People don’t care who their neighbors are; they don’t trust you. The other city is one of desperation. I see people on public buses, and I see their eyes, and I see they hold no hope. They can’t even imagine that they’ll be able to buy a house. They come from very poor villages where they’ve never seen electricity or toilet paper.

Every year millions come to Beijing to build its bridges, roads, and houses. Each year they build a Beijing equal to the size of the city in 1949. They are Beijing’s slaves. They squat in illegal structures, which Beijing destroys as it keeps expanding. Who owns houses? Those who belong to the government, the coal bosses, the heads of big enterprises. They come to Beijing to give gifts—and the restaurants and karaoke parlors and saunas are very rich as a result.

Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings: the Bird’s Nest, the CCTV tower. Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights. You will see migrants’ schools closed. You will see hospitals where they give patients stitches—and when they find the patients don’t have any money, they pull the stitches out. It’s a city of violence.

It’s a bleak description of the reality that lies underneath Beijing’s many tourist attractions and showy attempts to be a world-class city. In fact, he expresses the kinds of thoughts (“open secrets”– 公开的秘密) that dwell in many Chinese citizens’ minds, but are rarely expressed to anyone but trusted friends and family. Although the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are long past, most people here choose to avoid any “imperial entanglements,” as it were.

Ai has a quixotic belief that the government should uphold the national constitution, which guarantees — in theory — that all citizens have civil rights. Despite the huge gap between theory and practice, Ai continues to fight authority. It’s hard to say if he do any better than the guy in the John Mellencamp song.

ADDENDUM (10/28/2014): To view a selection of Ai’s works, pay a visit to‘s virtual gallery.

Made-in-China chili con carne
Nov. 23, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of the things I’ve missed in China is Mexican and Tex-Mex food. So, since I inherited a slow cooker from a former laowai, I’d been planning to make some chili. The other day, I happened to find some dry beans in the supermarket that looked somewhat like pinto beans. It was all I needed to put my plan into action.

Purists of various stripes may be appalled that I mixed meat with beans, or used beans at all, or that I omitted the spaghetti (a barbarous custom — sorry, Cincinnati chili aficionados), or used a premixed chili powder (Mexene™, from the USA).

To those purists, I say, get a life. Chili is basically a peasant’s meal, made with whatever is handy. The actual ingredients are not so important (except for the aforementioned spaghetti, which I can’t find here anyway). The flavor is.

So, here’s my made-in-China chili recipe. The only “foreign” ingredient is the Mexene™ powder, which if I tried I could probably replicate with locally available ingredients.

Chinese slow-cooked chili

Serves 6. Cooking time 6-7 hours.

1 cup dry speckled red beans
1/2 lb. (300 g) beef, cubed and browned (the package was not labeled, but from the looks, it was shoulder meat; Chinese beef is also very lean — no visible fat on this cut at all)
3 medium tomatoes, diced
1 large purple onion, diced and fried
2-3 red Anaheim peppers, chopped (these are widely available in Hunan)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (you can omit if you can’t stand cilantro’s smell or flavor)
2 Tbsp Mexene chili powder (I used one Tbsp each of hot and regular mix)
1 tsp salt, or to taste (I tend to under-salt my cooking)
1-2 Tbsp oil (I used peanut oil because of its high smoking point)

The night before —
Rinse the beans thoroughly. Place in slow cooker and cover with 3 cups hot water (for me, that means hot water from my drinking water dispenser, NOT from the tap!). Do not turn on the cooker. Cover and let them soak overnight.

The next morning —
Check water level and add more hot water to cover the beans. Turn on the cooker and set to high. While the beans cook, assemble and prepare the ingredients.

Add tomatoes, peppers, garlic, cilantro, salt and chili powder to the beans.

Get the wok good and hot. Add oil to wok. When it’s also good and hot, stir fry the chopped onion until it just begins to caramelize. Remove and add to cooker. In the same oil, briefly brown the cubed beef. Add more oil if necessary. Add beef to cooker.

Check the water level. Cover and turn heat to low, and cook until beans are al dente (about six hours for mine).

I had a little bit of red wine left over, so I marinated the beef in it while I prepared the veggies. I don’t know if it was a critical step, but the finished product was very good. Two of my Chinese friends enjoyed the chili, and one even had three helpings. I froze some to take next week to the old campus for the teachers there to try. We have a potluck lunch every Wednesday, and so far they’ve done all the cooking.

I served the chili on top of rice, which works out just fine. I plan to try making cornbread when I have some time to experiment. The cornmeal I bought is coarsely ground and needs soaking in boiling hot water before I make it into cornbread. The cornmeal pancakes I made with it were a little too crunchy-chewy for my tastes.

Chinese origins of English phrases
Nov. 27, 2011

[Cross-posted on my QQ diary page.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Last week, two of my colleagues and I debated whether the common English greeting, “long time no see,” was Chinglish or English slang. Since I’ve heard it since I was a kid, I contended it was authentically American. They insisted that its origins are Chinese, because there is a phrase in Chinese that is identical word for word. It turns out we are both right.

I checked for the origins of this phrase. One early appearance apparently was in a 1901 book about Native Americans; the white writer had a Native American speaking pidgin English, “long time no see you.” But a more likely origin is from western trade with the Chinese in the late 19th century.

“Long time no see” is the literal translation of the Cantonese 好耐冇見 (hou2 noi6 mou5 gin3) and the Mandarin 好久不见 (Hǎojiǔ bùjiàn). British (and perhaps American) seamen brought the phrase back home, where it eventually became part of the English language. (I also suspect it spread quickly because of early movies, and radio and TV programs featuring Chinese characters, like the Charlie Chan detective dramas, but I have no evidence.)

As it turns out, “long time no see” is not the only Chinese phrase “borrowed” by the English language. Here are some other common ones.

  • no can do (不能做 bū néng zuò) — “I can’t do it.” “It’s impossible.” An American pop hit in 1981 was “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates. (“I can’t go for that” is an American idiom meaning “I don’t like it” or “I won’t do it.”) Sugababes, a UK girl group, recorded a different pop hit, “No Can Do,” in 2008.
  • lose face (丟臉 diū liǎn) — bring shame upon oneself; “I enjoying losing face!” — one of Li Yang‘s Crazy English mottos for English learners.
  • no-go (不行 bù xíng)– not OK, option not taken; used by NASA and some military people in the USA, as in a “go/no-go situation”; “The launch was a no-go.” = “It didn’t happen.”
  • look-see (看见 kàn jiàn) — look, viewing, observation; “I’ll go have a look-see, and tell you about it.”
  • where-to? (哪去 nǎ qù)– “Where are you going?”, “Where do you want me to take you?”; a shorthand way for a taxi driver (especially in New York City) to ask for a destination: “Where to, lady?”
  • No this, no that — Not really a Chinese phrase, it is attributed to Chinese-run laundries in the US, who had signs that said “沒票沒襯衣” (méi piào, méi chènyī–No ticket, no shirt) meaning without your receipt, you could not collect your laundered clothing. Now, a common sign in many restaurants all over the US is “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” It means no one coming in without a shirt or shoes would be served food. In fact, they would be asked to leave, for health reasons.
  • Chop chop (from 快快 Cantonese faai3faai3/Mandarin kuàikuài — hurry up, go quickly; “Come on, we have to go now — chop chop!” English sailors already used the word “chop” themselves, to mean “quick” or “hurry.” “Choppy seas” means there is a brisk wind and rough waves. They turned 快快 into “chop chop,” to mean the same thing as the Cantonese phrase. When they saw how fast Chinese could eat using two sticks (筷子 kuàizi), instead of spoons or forks, they called the utensils “chop sticks” to mean “quick sticks.” Perhaps they confused the word 筷 with this word 快; in Mandarin anyway, they sound the same, but have different meanings. Nowadays, “chop chop” is not so common a phrase, but everyone knows the word “chopsticks.”

Since I am cross-posting this on my American blog and my QQ diary, here’s a quick Chinese lesson for my non-Chinese readers.

In Chinese, doubling a word has the same meaning as “very”, “better” or “every”, depending on circumstance. So the Chinese phrase 天天快乐 (tiān tiān kuàile) translated word for word is “day day happy,” meaning “Be happy every day” or “I hope you are happy every day.” (There is that word, kuài 快, again, but combined with 乐 le, it means “happy.”)

Another common Chinese phrase is 好好学习,天天向上 (hǎo hǎo xuéxí, tiān tiān xiàngshàng), attributed to Mao Zedong. In Chinglish, it is “good good study, day day up.” Rendered into more normal English, it means, “Study well, and make progress every day.”

“Good good study, day day up” has become a colloquial part of both Chinese and English here. Hunan Satellite TV carries a popular variety show called Day Day Up. There is also a Chinese language self-study site for foreigners, Day Day Up Chinese.

One last thing: Mandarin (and Cantonese) are tonal languages, meaning the tone (pitch) of a word changes its meaning. Mandarin has four tones, Cantonese even more. We can symbolize tones by using numbers after each word, or by using diacritical marks above the vowels. For example, 妈 (mā or ma1 — high steady tone) is “mother,” 麻 (má or ma2 — rising tone) is hemp, 马 (mǎ or ma3 — “scooping tone,” as I call it) is “horse” and 骂 (mà or ma4 — short, falling tone) is “to scold.” As you can guess, this makes learning Chinese especially difficult for foreigners whose native language is non-tonal. I wonder whether Swedes can learn Chinese faster than Americans.

China’s TV ‘police’ pull plug on commercials during period dramas
Nov. 29, 2011

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s TV networks are saturated with historical dramas, with settings ranging from the Tang Dynasty to the Japanese Occupation and the Communist Revolution. They are surprisingly popular among viewers, but, as in the West, the Internet (free movies!) beckons to those tired of the same old same old.

So, China’s version of the FCC has mandated that, beginning Jan. 1, costume dramas will no longer be interrupted by commercials, which are often as dully repetitive as the shows they sponsor. The hope, apparently, is that viewers will sit glued to their sets and not wander away to watch Hong Kong and Korean soapies, Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, or, worse yet, read the news about China from abroad.

The ban on commercials follows another directive a few months ago to eliminate American Idol-like talent contests like Super Girl and Super Boy, which have been much more popular than the state-approved “ain’t we great?” period pieces.

[Speaking of the Super Boy show, one of my juniors was a contestant last year, but was eliminated finally. If you want to check his singing out, here’s a link of him learning he advanced to the next round and singing, “Any Man of Mine.” Yes, I know, that’s my question, too.]

The authorities hope the nation’s networks will provide wholesome entertainment that fosters better understanding of China’s culture and history — all the good parts, of course.

Occupy Wall Street in Chinese eyes
Dec. 4, 2011

[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos]

JISHOU, HUNAN –Chinese observers seem to draw two opposing conclusions from the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA. The more common (state-approved) conclusion is: capitalism is bad, Marxism is good. The more thoughtful conclusion is: if the Chinese government doesn’t deal with widespread corruption, China might see similar protests in the not-too-distant future.

Recently, one of my friends asked me what Chinese reactions to OWS were. So, I’ve spent some time poring over Internet reports and blogs to get a sense how OWS is playing over here. Since my grasp of Mandarin is weak still, and my access to movers and shakers is limited, take my comments here with a grain of salt.

Official Chinese news coverage tends to characterize OWS as a confrontation between the very poor and homeless (the victims of heartless capitalism) and the rich and powerful (heartless capitalist dogs). The Communist Party is using OWS as an object lesson in the superiority of China’s Marxism.

Comments to an article about the clearing out of Zucotti Park in New York City are representative of netizen reactions. Several comments are rabidly anti-American and pro-Chinese, leading other commenters to accuse those writers of being paid pro-government trolls. (The Party reportedly pays people 5 mao, or 0.50 yuan, to post pro-government comments on the Internet.)

The more staid party publication, Global Times, predicts OWS will amount to nothing in the end and China should just wait and see what happens.

The Global Times, a widely read Chinese tabloid published by Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, noted in an editorial that “western countries can withstand street demonstrations better, since their governments are elected”.

“The conflicts may be minor or serious, but it will not bring significant change,” it added. “China needs to stay calm and observe how the street movements in the Western world develop and to make the rights choices for its own good.”

(From The Telegraph, Oct. 17.)

Lost in this state-approved presentation are several salient truths about OWS. It’s not just a poor people’s movement. OWS draws supporters from the middle class, too, including retired police chiefs, Iraqi war vets, housewives, grannies and working stiffs, as well as scruffy looking students. Chinese media ironically play up police roughly dealing with OWS protesters (subtly implying it’s a government crackdown), while obscuring the freedoms of assembly and free speech that permits OWS to be so widespread.

No one in the current government would dare remind anyone here of the 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests, which brought out thousands of students and intellectuals to rally for civil rights and resulted in a quick and brutal reaction by the Chinese police and military. Most of my students, in fact, know very little about that episode in Chinese history.

As an example of how the message of OWS has been skewed, we can look at a street protest in Zhengzhou by supporters of OWS. Some of them included cadres (important workers who are party members) who seemed to believe that OWS was a rally in support of Marxist ideals and against capitalism. Perhaps the protest was Party-sponsored.

Earlier this year, when the Jasmine Revolution was underway in North Africa and the Middle East, the government here quickly acted to foil any similar movements in China. The usual suspects (likely organizers) were rounded up and detained for several months, the Internet was “harmonized” — scrubbed of any rallying cries for a Jasmine Revolution in China — and official media portrayed the successful Arab Spring people’s movements, as yet more evidence for the superiority of the Chinese Way.

Ironies of ironies, you may be thinking, since China was after all founded as a people’s republic after a people’s revolution against a repressive government. That was before all those “peasants” ended up in power themselves, of course.

It’s that bitter irony that other Chinese recognize. The Party and its economic policies of the last 30 years have enabled China to become a major player in the world’s economy and allowed enterprising Chinese citizens to become rich beyond Mao’s imagination. Meanwhile, freedom of expression is tightly controlled, the Internet and media are closely monitored and censored (I had to use a network proxy to search for “Jasmine Revolution,” in fact), and government officials and business magnates help each other become fat cats.

To help grow the economy quickly, the State has given favored businesses considerable freedom to operate as they see fit (another irony, laissez-faire economic policy), sometimes at the expense of the common citizen, whose protests, when allowed, are ultimately pointless. We hear reports of entire city neighborhoods being evicted and razed for a new construction project, of a miner’s widow being denied access to her husband’s remains and being forced to accept a cash payment as compensation for his death, of bad food resulting from lax regulation, poor construction practices, and environmental disasters.

Many have resulted from the close personal and economic relationships that have developed between government officials, who look the other way, and the favored business leaders, who pay them to look the other way. Having given businessmen an inch, China’s political leaders have seen big business take a mile, and become a troublesome barrier to reform.

This is precisely the same message of OWS, which has not been lost on more thoughtful Chinese observers, who warn that China may yet have its own Occupy movement. As long as China can keep its growing middle class content and comfortable with material wealth, protest movements will gain no traction, however. China has largely been insulated from the economic crises of the USA and EU.

But, if the Chinese economy goes sour and middle class folks lose their jobs, homes and comfy lifestyle, China’s leaders will have an enormous problem that all the ‘Net harmonizing in the world will not solve.

You might also check out this reports.

Stratfor Analysis

Bloomberg analysis

Lunar eclipse, December 10, 2011
Dec. 10, 2011

Alnath (β Tau) and the eclipsed Moon -1 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and the eclipsed Moon -1 sec exposure

JISHOU, HUNAN — I caught the total lunar eclipse about halfway through totality. I didn’t do all the good stuff, like wait for the equipment to cool to ambient temperature (0°C here), because I almost forgot to go out. So, out of 25 shots I got three halfway decent ones. The focus seems to be a bit off, I fear.

The three images here are of the Moon toward the end of totality. You can just barely see it brighten on the lower right edge as it leaves the Earth’s shadow. The star to the left is Alnath (β Tauri), the second brightest star in Taurus. Alnath is a bluish-white B-class star, about 700 times brighter than the Sun, 4.5 times heavier and 5 times bigger. It’s 131 light-years away.

I used a tripod-mounted Nikon D60 with a 70-300 Tamron zoom lens at 70 mm, f5.6, ASA 200. The three exposures are 1.0 sec (above), 1.6 sec and 2.5 sec (below).

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon - 1.6 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon – 1.6 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon - 2.6 sec exposure

Alnath (β Tau) and eclipsed Moon – 2.6 sec exposure

Totality ended around 11:00 pm here.

Another eclipse picture
Dec. 11, 2011

The Moon near the end of totality

The Moon near the end of totality

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had to Photoshop this one a bit to clean it up. I mistakenly had the Tamron’s vibration control on, and the resulting movement smeared the Moon’s image, but left the star images intact.

This is a 10-second exposure with the lens zoomed to 230 mm, taken near the end of totality around 11:00 pm local time. Everything else is the same: Nikon D60 on tripod, Tamron 70-300 zoom lens, f5.6, ASA 200.

The stars surrounding the Moon are fainter members of Taurus: from top left going clockwise, 13 Tau/HIP23900A, iota Tau/HIP23497, HIP23589, 15 Tau/HIP23883 (closest apparently to Moon here), and L Tau/HIP 23871. Iota Tau is a member of the Hyades star cluster, whose V-shape outlines the horns of the bull. The stars of the Hyades are about 150-160 light-years away from Earth.

How do I know which star is which? It’s not an encyclopedic memory or fancy astronomy equipment. I used Stellarium, a free planetarium application for your computer. Here’s a screen shot of Stellarium showing the same view on my desktop.

Screenshot of Stellarium view of Moon at 11:00 pm Dec 10, 2011

Screenshot of Stellarium view of Moon at 11:00 pm Dec 10, 2011

Stellarium will give you details about any object you click on.

Interestingly enough, 15 Tau, which in this photo appears closest to the Moon, is actually the farthest star of the five from us. It’s 1032 light-years away. That’s some old light there.

Go to Chapter 5 –>

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