The China Chronicles, chapter 5 (2012)

— Back to Chapter 4

Greetings from 2012!
Jan. 1, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s 11:33 am on Jan. 1 here. So far, 2012 looks good. The sun might come out again, breaking a week of dreary skies. I have a four-day weekend, giving me enough time to catch up on all the grading I have to do.

In other good news, I reconnected with someone I haven’t talked to in months a few days ago. I was elated. I have three invitations to spend Spring Festival with friends. I have a short-term teaching assignment in Jiangmen, Guangdong province, next month. And I will visit Zhuhai and maybe Macao soon after that.

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. Cheers, everyone!

Wonder Girls: ‘Nobody’
Jan. 3, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Wonder Girls are a Korean pop group, whose 2008 single, “Nobody,” is a big hit in Korea and in China. I swear everyone here knows the song’s tune and the Chinese/English version’s lyrics.

I like it, too. So for your viewing pleasure, here is the Korean version.

There’s an English version, but frankly the lyrics are nearly unintelligible and don’t match up well with the choreography and melody.

Their official website has the same version as the one I’m sharing.

Mean girls
Jan. 6, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — I suppose I should not be surprised that Chinese adolescents can be as catty and mean-spirited as Americans are, but two incidents this week still bug me. I need to vent, so if you want to skip all this drama, go ahead.

To set up incident number 1, I need to explain my oral English examination format. Modeling the Cambridge Business English Certificate exams, I meet two (sometimes three) students at a time for about 20 minutes. I test them on vocabulary and pronunciation, then give them a topic on the spot to talk about between themselves for a few minutes. There is usually time left for me to ask them a few questions to verify listening comprehension and coach them on pronunciation issues.

Students sign up for these sessions in class about two to three weeks in advance. With more than 200 students to evaluate, I’m booked pretty tight.

A couple of days ago, I was scheduled to meet three girls — roommates, as it turns out — who I will call A, B, and C. And B are among my best students in their class; their spoken English is not perfect, but they can chatter away at fairly high speed in English. C is a less motivated student, and much quieter in class. If students had been picking members for softball teams, I suspect she would have been one of the last ones that one team would have reluctantly picked. You know what I mean. I certainly do.

Anyway, C told me that A and B, seeing that their roommate (and supposed “best friend”) was the odd girl out, told her she could join them for the examination.

The hour of destiny arrived and I found only C outside my office waiting. She explained, abashedly, that her “best friend,” A, had called her 20 minutes before the appointment and told her that, since C’s English skills were so poor, A and B didn’t want to share their exam time with her. She should meet with me alone.

Mind you, this poor girl, C, had to explain this to me in English with less than 20 minutes to prepare. She was able to do it lucidly and unambiguously, and even request that I not tell her fair-weather friends that she had shared this information with me. Poor English skills? Uh-uh, girl friend.

OK. They aren’t perfect. She has some pronunciation issues. She confused the word “taxi” with “test,” which had me totally confounded for about five minutes. Why would two girls agree to share a cab with her, then at the last minute tell her to get out? When I realized taxi = test, it made a lot more sense. Well, in a way.

C suffers from a serious lack of self confidence. She swore to me that her pronunciation was poor, yet did as well as, and in one case better than, A or B. Her original college plan, she told me, was to study interior design, but her parents required her to study English on the mistaken assumption that English majors stand a better chance in the crowded Chinese job market than design majors. They clearly don’t hang around with the rich folks who inhabit the big cities here with ginormous flats begging for some original design work.

[Amateur’s aside: Interior design in China is, I am sorry to report, boring. I love my friends here dearly, but their homes are stark and cookie-cutter like. I feel like I’ve been transported back to a 1980s Architectural Digest photoshoot every time I visit someone’s new home.]

C told me that she had to obey her parents, though she does not especially love English. Convinced that her skills were atrocious, she was visibly surprised when I told her that, in fact, her pronunciation was not at all poor — I have a few freshmen who are nearly unintelligible — and that with some effort, she could overcome her vocabulary and grammar issues. I also suggested she pick up a sketch pad and some pencils and start drawing in her spare time. The five-week winter holiday starts next week, after all.

As I promised, it didn’t let on to A and B that C had spilled the beans, nor did I point out to any of the three that their internal divisions totally fouled up the rest of my schedule for that afternoon. I’m still debating how to address the schedule fuck-up with the class next term without pinpointing the ABC team as the culprit.

On to incident 2. The night after the ABC caper, I was chatting with my friend, K, on QQ. In the course of our conversation about her employment woes, which I will share later to give you an idea of how Chinese bosses work her, I told her about these girls. K asked me if they were roommates, and when I said they were, replied, “Oh, then it definitely wasn’t about her English. It was some girl thing.”

Then K offered her own experience as a for-instance. Basically, in their senior year, one of her roommates would spread nasty gossip about her when she was out of the room while the girls played cards. When K returned to the dorm, the others would fold up the card game and go about their nightly ablutions, not speaking one word to K. This went on for months, until their graduation.

I have no idea why that one roomie had it out for K. Maybe it was some personality problem — K, dear girl, is rather outspoken — or jealousy about K’s academic prowess. Or something else that I, as a mortal man, will never fathom because I’m male and they aren’t.

It gave me added insight into my friend, and her classmates, whom I have all taught, but it also made me realize that people are people, no matter where they live or how they grew up. I suppose that’s good to know, but in these two cases, very sad.

Winter holiday time
Jan. 23, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — I had meant to post this a few days ago, but my webhost was having serious server issues, so I had to wait.

Exams ended Jan. 11. I had two days free before teaching four middle school students two hours a day for a week. That was basically my only time commitment until the 20th, when it was time for all of us to begin the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) holiday.

Most of the students on campus vacated as soon as exams ended. A few stayed to work short-term jobs before heading home, and even fewer are staying here for the entire holiday. So, at least I had some company. I’ve also spent time with friends in town. Most of the time, it’s blessedly quiet, so I can pursue projects that I’ve put off for months.

One was to get better wireless Internet service. China Mobile, my cell service provider, has WiFi service, but it’s spotty in Jishou and on campus. They are reportedly building it out over the next few months, so that I might actually have WiFi available in my classrooms and home by April. I wanted something a little quicker, so I asked a friend to help me get 3G service from China Telecom, China’s version of Ma Bell. (China Mobile only offers 3G service with new phones.)

In a few days, I will leave for Jiangmen, Guangdong, where I will teach in an English camp for 12 days. There is no room Internet access in the hotel we teachers will stay at, and only two terminals in the business center. So, having 3G service would be a big help, both there and here in Jishou.

China Telecom sold me a USB dongle for 398 yuan ($60) and three months’ nationwide 3G service for 300 yuan ($45) — $100 gives me 90 hours a month, a little pricey, but I only intend to keep it until China Mobile’s WiFi buildout. The USB modem (a Huawei EC122) works perfectly on my Lenovo notebook, but getting it to work on the Android tablet I had bought in August was not so easy. That’s the subject of another post.

Since this is only my second time staying on campus during Spring Festival, it took me a day or two to realize that ALL the shops would be closed on the 22nd and 23rd for the New Year holiday. When a couple of my students and I decided to go out to eat, we to walk quite a bit to find a restaurant near the campus that was even open on the 20th. A trip to a downtown restaurant the next day was more successful, but twice as expensive as normal. So, I got the hint and went to the supermarket to buy some provisions.

None of which I have even used yet. Last night, four of us had so much food for dinner that we had leftovers to take home. I reckon I have enough food to last a week, but in fact I’m leaving in three days for Jiangmen. So the leftovers will get eaten first, and the other stuff will keep till I get back.

The weather here has been cold and damp for the last two weeks. Two nights ago, it snowed, but that had melted by the afternoon. The temperature has been hovering around freezing, which means basically only my bedroom is comfortably warm. The living room can be made warm, but the portable heater sucks up so much electricity, I only use it when I am actually in the living room. The temperature in Jiangmen is about 10 degrees C (18 degrees F) warmer than here, so I am really, really looking forward to being warm for two weeks.

As for other happenings so far, I’ve made some new friends, relatives of one of my students: a middle school teacher, her husband (a police officer) and their daughter, a college student in Beijing, and the teacher’s sister and niece, a high school student. I had lunch at their place New Year’s Eve, and then we all went to sing at a KTV (karaoke club). They picked me up at the university in a police car, so now I can joke I was picked up by the police in China!

So, that’s the latest news here. It’s now the Year of the Dragon, the most important animal symbol of China. Important things are supposed to happen in Dragon years, so 2012 should be an interesting year.

Incidentally, the Chinese word for dragon is lóng 龙, which is also a common surname or given name. One famous namesake (and Dragon year baby) was Bruce Lee, whose name in Mandarin is Li XiǎoLóng 李小龙 — “Little Dragon Lee.” Lee would have been 72 this year.

The future of China: stuffy old men vs. energized citizens
Jan. 24, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — The common American assumption about China’s government is that it’s repressive, hellbent to maintain its power despite all internal or external pressures to change. But, from the perspective of someone inside China, the general population does not seem to fear the government, despite its ability to detain or “disappear” troublemakers.

Among my students, associates and friends, there is a quiet willingness to criticize the government, remark on the corruption of party officials, and play along with seemingly illogical demands from higher ups while basically doing nothing about them — the Chinese version of the colonial Spanish motto,”Obedezco pero no cumplo,” — I obey, but I do not comply (with royal edicts).

To be frank, I was not entirely sure my conclusions were correct until I read a lengthy essay in The Diplomat tonight by Gordon Chang, a writer for Forbes. Turns out I’m a better political and social analyst than I thought.

[Reading the comments after the essay, though, it seems not everyone agrees with me or Chang.]

Chang’s argument is cogent. Prosperity and electronic media have emboldened the Chinese populace as never before, as it plunges headlong into the 21st century. Meanwhile, the powerful elite men (and it is mostly men) who run the central government are slowly losing their iron grip on the country, and have no idea how to regain it. President Hu Jintao recently blamed Western influences on the “non-harmoniousness” of China, but he was relying on a familiar Chinese scapegoat: blame the outsiders for problems that are internal.

As Chang explains in detail, the cloistered men in Beijing pontificate and plan while the rest of the country basically ignores them. The Communist Party, for most Chinese, is no longer relevant to their lives. In addition, they’ve tasted freedom, and they want more.

Despite how the nation’s young feel, most foreign analysts – and all of Beijing’s apologists – tell us the Chinese people don’t care about personal liberty, that they are content to reap economic gains while letting the Communist Party keep its monopoly on political power. Yet due to the repressive nature of the political system, we don’t know if China’s citizens are telling us what they really think. The best we can do is catch a glimpse of them as they make their dash into the future. Chinese society is changing faster than any other on earth at the moment, and the ongoing transformation is shaking the country, even the seemingly invincible one-party state.

Especially the one-party state. “China’s leaders may run what looks like a closed political system, and their decisions seem autocratic,” noted Clinton-era official Robert Suettinger in Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations. “But they are struggling to keep up with a society that is changing in a direction and at a speed they cannot fully control.”

The pressure is not from without, despite Hu’s polemics. It’s coming from within China, as result of opportunities the Communist Party itself enabled. In essence, the CPC let the genie out of the bottle and now can’t force him back inside.

First, for the past 30-plus years, Chinese have been able to go into business for themselves. Families can till their own land. Entrepreneurs can start their own companies. Housewives and students can open e-stores on taobao.

Secondly, the Internet and mobile phone networks enable news, and criticism, to travel faster than even the government’s vast army of censors can keep up with.

In our volatile time, ideas are more powerful than they have ever been. The cell phone and the laptop can tip the balance against the Party as they can put everyone in touch. With instant communications, alliances can form quickly, thereby making broad coalitions possible. Groups, therefore, can be separated geographically yet still act in concert. That happened in 2003 in Shanghai where organizers of housing protests in different parts of the city made extensive use of cell phones for coordination. Texting spread rumors on SARS and, as noted, forced the government to act. We know hysteria can travel electronically: in 1999 a bank run in China was spread by rumors posted on the internet.

In the past, Chang notes, the leadership felt free to quash dissent brutally, as it did in 1989 with the Tian’anmen Square student protests. But, while the CPC does “round up the usual suspects” whenever there is even a hint of popular protests like the Arab Spring, Chang argues Beijing’s leaders will probably never again sic the Army on their own people.

Veteran China watcher Willy Lam, for one, says it’s extremely unlikely that the current Fourth Generation leadership would ever order another Tiananmen. For one thing, no one in today’s leadership has the personal authority to do so. For another, even if someone in the Fourth Generation gave such an order, it’s highly unlikely that the People’s Liberation Army would obey, says Lam. Even with his military record, it took Deng a long time to find a unit that would actually fight unarmed citizens in 1989. Nobody in the current civilian leadership has the same stature as Deng [XiaoPing], and such an order might split the military and cause a revolt in the officer ranks. Finally, even if the top brass followed an order to shoot, it’s unlikely that ordinary soldiers would kill ordinary citizens on behalf of a regime that has lost the love and loyalty of its people.

“Smith & Wesson beats four aces,” says another great China historian, Arthur Waldron. That’s always true – as long as one is strong enough to give the order and can command others to pull the trigger. China, unfortunately for the Communist Party, has changed too much to permit a 21st century Tiananmen.

Entrenched leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other places have dramatically lost their hold on their governments. That kind of popular movement will probably not happen here. Instead, change will come slowly, even glacially, but it will come, in spite, or perhaps because of, China’s out-of-touch leadership. In the meantime, I reckon I should keep my head down.

Chinese TV: setting new records for world’s most boring programming
Feb.14, 2012

GUANGZHOU, GUANGDONG — The BBC reports that China state media czars have yet again ensured China’s TV offerings will be the world’s most boring (other than North Korea’s, I suppose).

Now, China’s broadcast and cable TV providers must limit the amount of foreign programming. This means that the Taiwanese, Korean and Hong Kong soapies my students love so much will virtually disappear.

This new restriction follows another that curtailed the nation’s hugely popular talent shows and other reality programs copied from the West and Japan. Instead, the leaders of the Middle Kingdom want “uplifting” and culturally edifying programs.

Words fail to describe the lack of excitement in Chinese TV entertainment. Talk shows. Shopping channels. Period dramas. Lots of period dramas. Peking opera. Western orchestral music. Documentaries. War movies, especially focusing on the Japanese occupation. Simple-minded comedies. Glitzy entertainment shows. Imagine Branson, Missouri, on perpetual telecast. Remove anything remotely racy or political. Then you’ll come close to Chinese TV.

My short stay in Macau allowed to see shows from Portugal, via RTP, the state TV channel. RTP is also boring, but at least I can understand more than half of what they say.

Many Chinese share my opinion of their national TV offerings, and flout national laws by pointing their satellite TV dishes toward foreign satellites beaming to Hong Kong and Singapore. While visiting Shanghai last summer, I noticed more than half the dishes at one apartment complex pointing in a different direction than the rest. I reckon the majority were stealing signals from unapproved satellite providers.

Big yellow school buses come to China
Feb. 17, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — I arrived last night from my travels in Guangdong and hit the ground running. So, while I muster my resources to blog about the last three weeks, here are photos courtesy of from the first American school bus expo in China, complete with models!

(In the States, do school bus manufacturers show off their new (bus) models with (pretty) models? I’m not exactly sure what the message would be, though …)

Model with Blue Bird school bus

Blue Bird attracted some attention with this redhead

I am not sure what to make of this shot, but it might be some teenage boy’s dream prom date.

Model entering school bus

Check out the sumptuous interior. Um, really?

And one for anime/manga fans …

Schoolgirl uniforms, models and school buses

Models in school uniforms pose with school bus. Hmmm...

Sarcasm aside, the expo has a serious purpose. There have been several tragic accidents in China involving overloaded “buses” — actually, minivans — transporting kids to and from school. In one accident in Gansu province, there were more than 25 preschoolers packed into a van with only nine seats. Twenty were killed when the van collided with a truck.

American school buses, by contrast, have a deserved reputation of being safe, so officials in China are now looking into importing Big Yellows into China.

Busman’s holiday in Guangdong
Feb. 24, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Honest, I had every intention of blogging while I was traveling earlier this month. It’s just that a computer was seldom available and typing on my Android tablet is still frustrating.

OK, OK. I admit it. I was being lazy, or maybe just tired from teaching 100 fifth and sixth graders for two weeks. You try that sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.

In a nutshell, my winter holiday went thusly: two weeks in Jishou straddling the Chinese New Year on Jan. 22, two weeks in Jiangmen, Guangdong, teaching the aforesaid 100, and a week on my own visiting Macau and Guangzhou. Three days after I arrived back Jishou, classes resumed. I am writing this from the other side of the first week’s classes.

Jiangmen 江门 is a bustling city of 4.5 million south of the metropolis, Guangzhou 广州 (Canton). A teacher friend there recruited me for a young learners’ English program at WuYi University, which is offered every winter and summer holiday. Despite the hefty cost (1500 yuan for 24 hours of classes over 12 days), the program draws about 500 students each term, because they are guaranteed to have a foreign teacher.

To meet this demand, the university uses its own foreign teachers, hires foreigners in Jiangmen and recruits foreigners from abroad who typically combine the two weeks of teaching with touristy activities. Interestingly enough, WuYi has found some of those teachers through the Maryknoll Society. (That link will take you to an article written by one of my fellow teachers at Jiangmen, Judy. This link takes you to Maryknoll’s own China Service website.)

The waijiao tally was something like this: two Americans, one Canadian, four Aussies, one Brit, two Germans and two from Hong Kong (one Italian by birth, the other Indian by birth). I was among the youngest of the bunch, as most of my fellow teachers were retirees, or close to it.

So, it was refreshing to be among adult native English speakers for a couple of weeks. Seven of us were housed in the school’s Cultural Center, which serves as a hotel, and six of us met regularly for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all courtesy of the university. (The seventh had friends in town and hung out with them.) I learned a lot about Australia’s Sunshine Coast in Queensland from Annette, Judy and Sue, Hong Kong from Lucy and Louise and Newcastle, England, from Lydia, whose daughter also lives in Queensland.

Another highlight was Richard, an American visiting his Chinese girlfriend in Jiangmen. His enthusiasm and good humour reminded me of how I felt (and still feel) back when I was a newcomer on these shores.

In fact, while I enjoyed teaching my 100 bright and energetic students, hanging out with the adults really made the gig worthwhile.

Our daily schedule went like this: two one-hour morning lessons with 20 minutes break in between, three hours for lunch and siesta time, two one-hour afternoon lessons with a break, then dinner. We taught for 10 days, and on our weekend took a day trip to Baomo Garden in Panyu, outside Guangzhou. WuYi is close to a swanky hotel, three shopping centers and a city park, so there was plenty for us to do, if we weren’t too exhausted from teaching.

I came to Jiangmen by high speed rail: 2.5 hours to cover the 700 km (438 miles) between Changsha and Guangzhou and another 45 minutes to reach Jiangmen, 72 km (45 miles) from Guangzhou. Expecting warmer weather, I packed light, only to find Guangdong was in the middle of a cold snap — 40-degree weather and drizzle for a week. So, I took advantage of being near a TESCO, and picked up a sweater and a down vest. Later on, I got a smart-looking grey wool-blend overcoat for about $40. These purchases of course guaranteed two things: the weather would warm up in a week’s time and I would need a larger bag to head back home.

After Jiangmen, the plan was to meet a student of mine in her hometown of Zhuhai, two hours away by bus. But holiday family visitation duties spoiled her plans. So I decided to forge on ahead, and visit Macau, the sister city of Zhuhai, on my own.

Macau, which the Chinese call Aomen 澳门, is a former colony of Portugal. It was handed over to the mainland in 1999, two years after the British ceded Hong Kong back to China. Both city-state are Special Administrative Regions of mainland China, meaning they have more political autonomy and social freedom than cities within the People’s Republic of China. It meant, for example, that I could access Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Picasaweb, which are all blocked in the PRC.

I liked Macau so much, I’ll devote a separate post to it.

After that all-too-brief sojourn, I met up with friends in Guangzhou for a couple of days before flitting back to Changsha by high speed rail, and finally returning to still-chilly Jishou to gear up for teaching university students once again.

All in all, I had great time this winter holiday. There were occasional periods of boredom, and fatigue from teaching elementary school students, but I made new friends, renewed old acquaintances and visited another part of China for the first time. Oh, and I made enough money to pay for my travel and the pricey hotel room in Macau. I’m going do it again next year, in all likelihood.

A viagem para Macau (dia primeiro)
March 3, 2012

MACAU — For some reason, Macau has intrigued me for a long time. It’s not just the glitzy casinos, which rival the ones in Vegas, it’s the blend of European and Asian influences in one teeny tiny living space.

The original plan was to take a bus from Jiangmen to Zhuhai to meet up with a student host, but her parents had other plans. Spring Festival and the winter holiday surrounding it is a time for families to get together. They were driving out to the countryside to see older relatives before my student had to head back to school. So, I decided to head to Macau on my own.

A quick geography lesson: Guangdong 广东 (also known as Canton) is the province just south of Hunan, where I live. The provincial capital is Guangzhou 广州, and south of it are the cities of Jiangmen 江门, Dongguan 东莞, Shenzhen 深圳 and Zhuhai 珠海, as well as many others, all situated in the Pearl River Delta. If you are using something made in China, there’s a good chance it was either made in or shipped out of one of those port cities.

Shenzhen lies across the border from Hong Kong (XiangGang 香港), and Zhuhai across from Macau (Aomen 澳门). HK was a British territory until 1999, when the UK handed it back to China. Macau was a Portuguese territory until 1997. Both are now Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of mainland China, which has enabled them to preserve some autonomy from Beijing’s often restrictive social and political control.

Macau’s big claim to fame are its casinos, which attract players from all over Asia and beyond. Not being a gambler, I just visited a couple of the casino hotels as a rubbernecker, and was suitably awed by the scope of these places. The Venetian is probably large enough to house a medium-sized American town (at about $350 a night per room).

I was more interested in the Portuguese influence (being a speaker of the language), so I planned to visit the colonial parts of the cites during my two-day stay.

Portuguese is one of the official languages of Macau, Chinese being the other, but there are actually very few Portuguese speakers here. Most people speak Cantonese, Mandarin and to a lesser extent, English. Still, my hotel had RTP, the national television of Portugal (which also televises Brazilian programming), and I found Portuguese language newspapers at the news stands. Many place names and streets carry Chinese and Portuguese names, but I suspect the locals would only understand the Chinese names.

Guangzhou and the other cities are within two to three hours of each other by bus. I really wanted to take the hydrofoil ferry from Jiangmen to Macau, also a two-hour trip down the Pearl River, but getting clear information about the sailings was frustrating.

Two of the Australians took me to the big hotel near WuYi University, where they were sure there was a shuttle to the ferry dock. The desk clerk, however, swore there was no such shuttle and that there was no ferry to Macau. Sue, who has been in Jiangmen several times before, insisted there were such things, but to no avail. The desk clerk, who seemed rather harried at the time, stuck to his story.

Cultural explanation: In China, if someone in charge should know about something, but doesn’t, they will not admit ignorance. To save face, they will just deny any such thing exists. The American concept of admitting you don’t know and volunteering to help you verify your information was not in this fellow’s customer service repertoire.

Of course, he might have been more helpful if we were paying guests of the hotel.

Two of the teachers in the Jiangmen program arrived from Hong Kong by ferry, and they told us the ferry stopped in Macau on the way. After asking around, and getting little help from travel experts in Jiangmen, I finally found the ferry company’s website, which listed only a 9:00 departure from Jiangmen. The price was 240 RMB, compared to 47 RMB for the bus. Weighing my options, the bus seemed the better choice, though certainly less scenic or, as I discovered, as comfortable a ride.

Gongbei border crossing, Zhuhai, China

Gongbei border crossing, Zhuhai, China

Because of Macau’s status as an SAR, there is still a border crossing. The bus stops at Gongbei, the immigration and customs complex in Zhuhai. You have to leave the bus with your luggage and walk into the complex. There is a two-floor shopping mall, with duty-free shops, below the actual customs and immigration hall. There you stand in one of a dozen or so lines to exit China to get your passport stamped and your bags X-rayed. Then you walk across a “no-man’s land” and enter another customs and immigration hall belonging to Macau, get in another of a dozen or so lines to get your instant entry visa (good for 90 days) and your bags once again X-rayed. You exit into downtown Macau’s Praça das Portas do Cerco (border gate plaza).

[There is a similar set-up in Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It’s all a little weird, because in both cases you’re still technically in China, but bureaucracy is the same all over the world. Why make things simple?]

The Victoria Hotel, Macau

The Victoria Hotel, Macau

Using and, I found the Victoria Hotel, which is just a fine-minute walk from Portas do Cerco. Or it would have been, if I had not walked right past it and gotten lost. I had seen a photo of the hotel, but from the direction I was coming from, I didn’t recognize it. I had to ask directions three times before I found, shame-faced, that it was there plain as day just a few blocks from Portas do Cerco. Duh.

Normally, Google Maps on my phone would have come to my rescue, but China Mobile has no cell service in Macau. My phone was off the grid for the time I was there. For a two-day stay, it wasn’t worth buying a SIM card from the local provider, CTM, to regain service.

But in my hotel room, I could use Google Maps on my Android tablet, which helped me find which local bus would take me where I wanted to go. Macau is really quite small, and densely packed, with streets that meander, European style, all over the place. There are very few straight lines between point A and point B, so the bus is far quicker than walking (and getting lost).

Which I did again the next morning, but somewhat on purpose. The city website listed a weekly flea market in Taipa that seemed like a nice activity for a warm Sunday morning. The bus from Macau peninsula to Taipa island would drop me near the sports stadium, and I would have to walk the rest of the way. And walk I did, wandering semi-aimlessly past the Jockey Club, the Galaxy casino-hotel, and a shopping area, where I found a shrine to a local god, a McDonald’s (serving pumpkin soup!), a coffeehouse (serving French toast!) and a bookstore (serving English language books!), before I wandered into the old Taipa trading market, Feira do Carmo.

Taipa House Museum, Macau

Taipa House Museum, Macau

From there, I just wandered about, discovering an old Catholic church, and the Taipa Houses Museum, a group of five light green two-story homes dating from around 1900. One house preserves the furnishings of a middle class family of the 1920s, another is a museum shop, and a third displays folk costumes of Portugal. The other two are only open for special occasions.

This part of Macau preserves the colonial architecture very well, complete with period street signs and cobblestone streets (and ancient ficus trees). But across a small lake are the more modern casino-hotels of Co-Tai: the colossal Venetian Resort, the City of Dreams, comprising the monolithic Grand Hyatt Macau, the cylindrical Hard Rock Hotel and the elliptical Crown Towers Hotel) and others that are still under construction.

Of those, a friend recommended I visit the Venetian, which replicates Venice, complete with its own canal and gondolas and a partly cloudy (painted) blue sky over the shopping mall. The buildings imitate those in the real Venice, but it’s hard to imagine you are in Venice with the glass-and-steel towers of the Hard Rock, the Crown and Hyatt right behind you.

The main lobby of the Venetian is as overwhelming as the outside, complete with a giant armillary spehere and frescoes on the arched ceilings. The casino area seemed not as large as I had expected. Instead of losing money gambling, I decided to check out the shopping mall with the painted sky and canals. The shops all sold designer-label merchandise, way outside my budget, but the food court seemed almost affordable. Almost. Two dishes at an Indian take-away shop cost 135 patacas (about 120 RMB or $20). But the food was tasty, and the setting was (if you squinted really hard) almost like being in a Venetian plaza … full of people speaking Chinese.

The Venetian Food Court, Macau

The Venetian Food Court, Macau

In fact, while there were westerners like me there, by far most of the Venetian’s clientele were Chinese, undoubtedly from HK and the mainland, spending their HKD and RMB on a casino holiday.

Having explored all of Taipa and Cotai I could handle in one day, I retraced my steps, found my bus stop and returned to the Victoria. To give you an idea of the kind of harebrained travelogue this is, I never actually found the flea market, and really didn’t care.

[Next: the second day in Macau, the train to Guangzhou and what I found there.]

My book said, “On error -47, go to China”
March 3, 2012

xkcd no. 1024

A viagem para Macau: dia segundo Sun, 11 Mar 2012 04:30:01 +0000

Now there's a post office building!

Now there's a post office building!

MACAU — My stay here was all too short, so on my last day, I got up early, intending to pack in some more sightseeing.

The only definite part of my agenda was to meet friends in Guangzhou for dinner around 6. The train ride from Zhuhai would only take an hour, so I figured, with border control and all, that 3 pm was the absolute latest I could tarry in Macau.

A few days earlier, my stepson sent me photos he had found online from a Macau webcam. One was of Gongbei, the Zhuhai side of the border crossing. The other looked remarkably like Largo do Senado, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Macau. Largo do Senado is surrounded by the General Post Office, the Leal Senado (colonial Senate building), and churches dating back to the 16th century. As I discovered, there are also dozens of little shops, a McDonald’s (with a suitably tasteful facade) and a very Euro-style Starbucks cafe.

Although I could have walked there in about an hour from my hotel, a 15-minute bus ride was more appealing. I got off near Largo do Senado and walked about two blocks toward the post office, an elegant stone building erected in 1931. (Please excuse the sunflare in the photo.)

Macau has a reputation in the stamp-collecting world for issuing artistically beautiful stamps. I am not a stamp collector, and I don’t have anyone close interested in philately. (This reminds me of a line from Firesign Theater’s Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, if you know what I mean. RIP Peter Bergman.) But, stamps make for a very lightweight, portable and unique gift, so I spent some time in the post office gift shop.

Chinese lanterns and European architecture in Largo do Senado

Chinese lanterns and European architecture in Largo do Senado

After buying a few items, I meandered across the tiled square toward the Church of St. Dominic’s, an ancient church still in active use. Since the Chinese New Year Festival had just ended, the square was still hung with bright red and gold lanterns and two displays celebrating the Year of the Dragon (long nian 龙年) still occupied most of the space near the post office and the adjacent Santa Casa de Misericordia (Holy House of Mercy), dating from the 16th century.

St. Dominic’s was open, although it was Monday, and the security guard told me it was OK to take photos inside. (I took photos in a church in Hefei, Anhui province, one time, and a parishioner went ballistic. Now I ask first.) This church has been extensively restored since the 1990s. Built largely of wood, the church was to the point of collapse from the effects of saltwater humidity and insects. It was shored up with a steel framework, the roof was reinforced and replaced, the wiring and plumbing were modernized, and everything was cleaned and repainted. The result is a beautiful and very cheerful church.

St. Dominic's inviting sanctuary

St. Dominic’s inviting sanctuary

The Starbucks beckoned with its free Wi-Fi, so I chilled there for a while watching the people walk by, reading the Portuguese language newspapers I picked up, before I decided it was time to head back to the hotel. There were other places in Macau I wanted to visit, but my friends were expecting me in Guangzhou and I didn’t want to be late.

One interesting site for this Comparative Literature major was the reputed residence of Luís de Camões, the 16th century Portuguese poet. Camões wrote sonnets (some say they are better than Shakespeare’s) and the epic Os Lusíades (The Lusiads), about the early history of Portugal. He traveled widely, and perhaps visited the Macau colony. There’s no definite proof he lived here, but the possibility is enough for the locals to say he did. (Rather like those “George Washington slept here” signs dotting the Northeastern US.) The Camões Garden and Grotto is not far from Largo do Senado, but just far enough for me to skip it for now.

Here is a sonnet of Camões, in Portuguese and English:

Amor é um fogo que arde sem se ver,
É ferida que dói, e não se sente;
É um contentamento descontente,
É dor que desatina sem doer.
É um não querer mais que bem querer;
É um andar solitário entre a gente;
É nunca contentar-se de contente;
É um cuidar que ganha em se perder.
É querer estar preso por vontade;
É servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
É ter com quem nos mata, lealdade.

Mas como causar pode seu favor
Nos corações humanos amizade,
Se tão contrário a si é o mesmo Amor?

Love is a fire that burns, but is never seen;
a wound that hurts, but is never perceived;
a pleasure that starts a pain that’s unrelieved;
a pain that maddens without any pain; a serene
desire for nothing, but wishing her only the best;
a lonely passage through the crowd; the resentment
of never being content with one’s contentment;
a caring that gains only when losing; an obsessed
desire to be bound, for love, in jail;
a capitulation to the one you’ve conquered yourself;
a devotion to your own assassin every single day.

So how can Love conform, without fail,
every captive human heart, if Love itself
is so contradictory in every possible way?

Luís de Camões, Amor é fogo que arde sem se ver, translated by William Baer. Found here.

Eventually, China’s high-speed rail system will connect Gongbei to Guangzhou, making it all the easier for mainlanders to gamble, — I mean, see the sights in Macau. For now, the line ends north of Zhuhai. Without a clear understanding of Zhuhai’s bus system, I decided I would just hail one of the many taxis lingering near Gongbei plaza. The ride took about an hour (Zhuhai sprawls like Guangzhou) and cost 88 RMB ($14). Zhuhai North Station is basically out in the middle of nowhere, in a development zone that’s not quite developed, but like the other CRH stations, it is clean, spacious and modern. I had no trouble buying a ticket for the next train (3:15 pm), which whisked me to Guangzhou South Station in an hour.

GZ, by contrast, has a well developed subway system. Entirely by chance, I had booked a hotel just a block from a station on line 2, which begins at GZ South Station. Unlike the subways in the other Chinese cities I’ve visited, the GZ machines spit out, not paper cards with scancodes, but green plastic tokens with (I assume) an RFID chip inside. You hold the token near the turnstile reader to enter the subway, and at your destination drop it in the turnstile slot to leave. I was in my hotel by 5:30 pm.

As it turned out, my hurry was not entirely necessary. One of my dinner companions, Sarah, worked out in the suburbs, two hours away, since the metro doesn’t yet extend that far. Mike, our host, and I waited patiently while Sarah made her way to meet Mary, and then finally to our rendezvous point.

All three are recent graduates. Mike was an English major at the Jishou University Foreign Language College in Zhangjiajie. While I’ve never taught him, Connie Hu, my former St. Francis colleague, has. Mike and I have become good friends. A native of Hunan, he now teaches middle school English in Guangzhou and has moved his mom down from Huaihua to live near him.

Mary and Sarah, on the other hand, are former students of mine. Both were English education majors. Sarah was working for a foreign trade company on their sales staff, but has since left. Mary had been working for another foreign trade company last year, but quit before the New Year. She was back in GZ to look for work, and since landed a sales job with an automobile accessory company.

The three of them, all in their early 20s, represent the latest college-trained generation. There are literally hundreds of millions of college grads looking for work in China every year, and many gravitate toward the big commercial powerhouses like GZ, where jobs are plentiful, if not always enjoyable. Mike has a comfortable job teaching, and he seems quite happy with it. Mary and Sarah, on the other hand, both had entry-level jobs in sales that they hated, mostly because of the pressure to meet monthly quotas. While she loved GZ, Sarah has moved to Changsha to find work, perhaps as a teacher. Mary was originally trying to sell security cameras to prospects in North and South America, a tough sell. Now, she sells auto accessories like GPS units, which have a wider appeal, and thus are easier to close on.

Both Mary and Sarah come from farm communities of southern Hunan. Rural parents typically prefer their girls to become teachers, considered a secure and stable job suitable for woman, but neither Mary or Sarah were especially keen on being a teacher after graduation. Sarah may yet become one, but Mary, whose parents are now both migrant workers in factories, seems destined for a life in business.

Needless to say, the fact that these three speak English fairly well has enabled them to find work fairly quickly. Employers use applicants’ spoken English skills as a way to winnow out the less desirable ones, even if they never need to use it in their job. It’s just a hoop to jump through.

Anyway, the next day Mary and I spent some time together having lunch and visiting a park. By late afternoon, we were both tired. She went home to resume her job hunting, and I returned to the hotel to pack up once again for my trip back to Hunan. Two and half hours to Changsha, an overnight stay, and a five-hour bus ride, and I was back in chilly and damp Jishou, ready to start the new term.

I did miss the warm weather, though.

Two more items from the jukebox in my head (guitar players, take note!)
March 11, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — My seniors just had their all-important Test for English Majors level 8 (TEM8), which now means many feel adrift with no overwhelming burdens on their shoulders.

For months, they have been plowing through books, boning up (for some) the postgraduate examination in January and (for all) the TEM8 this weekend. A good mark on the postgrad exam opens the way to further education; a passing mark on the TEM8 allows them to qualify for better jobs after graduation.

One cast-adrift student texted me this afternoon. Bored with nothing to do now, she was wandering around campus and said she wanted to stop by and visit me. Trouble is, I wasn’t home at the time. She signed off, complaining she had nothing to do, and unbidden, a fragment of a song long forgotten floated up: “Playing Solitaire till dawn with the deck of 51/Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo/Now don’t tell me, I’ve nothing to do.”

Predictably, it was a top 40 hit from my early childhood and I am sure I must have heard it over and over again on the radio. The Statler Brothers recorded “Flowers on the Wall” in 1965, and rose to be a hit on both the country-western and Top 40 charts. From YouTube, a performance from the Johnny Cash TV show:

If you don’t which one is Johnny Cash, be ashamed. He’s the Man in Black. (This song also turns up in Pulp Fiction, just before Bruce Willis creams a guy with his car.)

While I was poking around the Intertubes, I googled another song fragment, “Baby, let your hair hang down.” Why I associated the two songs together, I haven’t a clue. “Walk Right In,” from 1963, was originally recorded by a folk trio called The Rooftop Singers. It’s been covered many times, but that version is the one I remember best.

Maybe this is why: according to Wikipedia, it was perhaps the first big hit that featured 12-string guitars. Group member Erik Darling wanted a distinctive sound, so he ordered two 12-strings from the Gibson company. Back then, they were apparently as rare as hen’s teeth.

Here’s a vintage YouTube video for your listening pleasure. Ironically, none of these singers have hair that would hang down at all.

This is the original recording (no video). The guitars are more prominent in this version, which is on the Forrest Gump soundtrack.

So, if you play the 12-string guitar, thank that song. Their availability rose quickly after people heard them on the radio and saw them on national TV.

Bridge engineering marvel in Aizhai near here opens
March 30, 2012

Eastern half of Aizhai Suspension Bridge

Eastern half of Aizhai Suspension Bridge

JISHOU, HUNAN — Big news events are few and far between here, but the Aizhai Suspension Bridge — the longest tunnel-to-tunnel bridge in the world — opened today for traffic.

The bridge, which is about 45 minutes’ drive west of here, has a main span of 1,146 meters (0.7 miles) and its deck is 350 meters (1,150 feet) above ground, making it the sixth-highest and twelfth-longest bridge in the world. It spans the Dehang Canyon and connects two tunnels through adjacent mountains.

The official opening will be tomorrow, but apparently traffic is already passing over the bridge.

On Sunday, I accompanied one of my freshmen classes to the Dehang Miao Village and Geopark. On the way back, we stopped under the bridge for a photo op. Here’s two I took, shooting into the afternoon sun.

Western half of the Aizhai Suspension Bridge

Western half of the Aizhai Suspension Bridge

Work on the bridge started in 2007. It’s part of a still-incomplete national expressway linking Inner Mongolia to the north with Guangdong to the south. Closer to home, it connects Jishou to Chadong, Guangxi province, cutting what was a four-hour drive over switchback mountain roads to one hour over a divided four-lane expressway.

The construction of the highway across the rugged terrain here is quite a marvel. The highway soars over deep valleys, like this one in Dehang, and burrows through mountains. I’ve been able to catch glimpses of the work as I’ve traveled around western Hunan for the last four years.

Here’s a better view of the entire span from above, from

Aizhai Suspension Bridge

Aizhai Suspension Bridge

The Telegraph has a video of the opening, which I’ve tried to embed but can’t get to play. The link will take you there if you’re curious enough to watch it.

Our visit to Dehang included an easy, but long hike to Liusha Waterfall, supposedly the longest in China at 216 m. A stone path takes you behind and under the fall, and of course there are places for you to have your photos taken with the fall in the background. Here is my student, Smile Su, wistfully posing on a pedestal with the waterfall in the background.

Smile Su and the Liusha Waterfall, Dehang Park

Smile Su and the Liusha Waterfall, Dehang Park

And here’s a shot of the falls as we approached it.

Liusha Waterfall, Dehang National Geopark

Liusha Waterfall, Dehang National Geopark

It was a bright, sunny day, the first in weeks, with an afternoon high of 70 degrees F. It’s been raining since Tuesday, though. Weather forecasters are predicting sunny and warm days for the upcoming QingMing Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day) on Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday’s classes have been moved to Saturday and Sunday to give us a three-day holiday. I have no idea what I’m doing then, other than enjoying a well-earned rest.

My salary in global perspective
April 1, 2012

My salary in perspective

My salary in perspective

JISHOU, HUNAN — No one ever said teachers will be rich, and that’s even more true for a teacher in China. Even more so for we foreign teachers, who get pay one (or 1.5) order of magnitude less than our American counterparts in dollars.

But, as you can see from the graphic above, courtesy of the BBC Weekend Magazine, my monthly pay is quite a bit above the Chinese average, but still $422 below the world average. If I include an estimate for my housing and utilities, which the university pays for me, my salary becomes almost three times the Chinese average and within $200 of the world average.

But, as you can see from the chart, no matter how you slice it, my salary (without adding in free rent) is about a third of the American average of $3,263.

Blindly applying exchange rates doesn’t explain my situation, however. If you’re wondering how 4,400 RMB can be $1,058 when the exchange rate is about 6.35 RMB to the dollar, consider the buying power of 1 RMB (1 yuan) in China.

The International Labour Organization calculates the bar chart using the Purchasing Power Parity dollar, a monetary unit adjusted for local buying conditions.

“If someone in China takes their salary of 1,500 yuan per month and they go to the bank, they will actually get $200,” ILO economist Patrick Belser explains.

“But this is not what we use to compute this global average, because what is important here is what people are able to buy with these 1,500 yuan, and this is where we compare to the purchasing power of the US dollars and find that it is actually equivalent to around $400.”

Another way of putting it is that the conversion to PPP dollars expresses how much it would cost you in the US to get the equivalent goods and services you can buy with your salary locally.

To put it even more succinctly, I live very comfortably on 4,400 RMB a month. I had the sense that my yuan goes pretty far, especially here in Jishou where the cost of living is very low even by Chinese standards, so the ILO figures reassure me that I’m not imagining things.

Some photos of the Aizhai Suspension Bridge
April 2, 2012

These are not mine. I’m sharing them from a community website here.

View from the bridge itself:
View from Aizhai Bridge

Eye-level view of bridge, showing the old switchback road it replaces:
Deck of bridge

Miao nationality drummers, opening ceremonies:
Miao drummers

More at this link

Women in traditional Miao clothing (link to other pix):
Miao girls

Ultralights leaving bridge deck:
Ultralights off Aizhai Bridge

Nice shot of bridge tower from below:
Bridge from below

And from above:
Bridge from above

More photos here and here.

Anonymous strikes hundreds of Chinese websites
April 5, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Anonymous China (@AnonymousChina) has reportedly defaced more than 480 government and commercial websites in China in the last week, and has published user account information and emails from some.

The attacks are continuing even today. This site was just defaced:

The attacks came from out of the blue, but follow the recent government crackdown on Chinese microblog (weibo) sites, whose users must now reveal their real names to retain their accounts. Six vocal weibo users have been arrested, as well.

As reported by the BBC and ZDNet, Anonymous China dropped its own index page into at least 485 websites across China, beginning the end of March.

Anonymous China deface page

Surprise! Anonymous caught you with your pants down.

AnonymousChina has posted the list of the attacked sites at I did a spot check of some sites, and most were back online and seemingly normal. A few gave error 404 pages or MySQL server errors.

A separate pastebin page (Message from @AnonymousChina – #GlobalRevolution) gives the reasons for the attacks.

Hello, we are Anonymous.
All these years the Chinese Government has subjected their people to unfair laws and unhealthy processes.
People, each of you suffers from tyranny of that regime.

Fight for justice, fight for freedom, fight for democracy!

In the defaces and leaks in this day, we demonstrate our revolt to the Chinese system. It has to stop! We aren’t asking you for nothing, just saying to protest, to revolt yourself, to be the free person you always want to be! So, we are writing this message to tell you that you should protest, you should revolt yourself protesting and who has the skills for hacking and programming and design and other “computer things” come to our IRC: channel: #GlobalRevolution .

We are Anonymous.
We are Legion.
We do not forgive.
We do not forget.
Expect us.

China itself has been accused of allowing, encouraging or ordering cyber attacks on American and other websites in recent years, which they have officially denied as western propaganda. Now they’re getting some payback from AnonymousChina.

My neighbor, a Chinese cuckoo (Cuculus sparverioides)
April 22, 2012

large hawk-cuckoo

Wikimedia image of large hawk-cuckoo

JISHOU, HUNAN — Now that spring has arrived, it’s time for my other avian neighbor — a cuckoo-bird 布谷鸟 bùgǔ-niǎo — to serenade me at night. Boring, but more melodic than the overactive rooster constantly crowing all day.

Here he is:

(I recorded him from my bathroom window with my Nokia E63, then used Audacity to amplify and convert to mp3. The fainter sounds are from the student dormitory just below mine.)

He generally calls all night, but after four years I’ve learned to tune him out. I’m sure he roosts in the big tree outside my bathroom window, but I’ve never seen him.

Believe it or not, it wasn’t until Friday night that I actually remembered to ask someone what bird makes that call. I happened to be at a friend’s house when I heard another cuckoo calling outside their window. I’m not a birder. Since it doesn’t sound like the familiar cuckoo call of clock fame, I had no idea what it was.

There are several species of cuckoos all over the world, and each species has a distinctive call. The call of the male common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is the one imitated by cuckoo clocks, and from which we get its English name. After some online research, I identified my neighbor as a large hawk-cuckoo (Cuculus sparverioides), known in Chinese as 鹰鹃 yīng-juān. According to, the species is common all over southern and southeast Asia.

Here’s a video of a large hawk-cuckoo calling in Nepal. Sounds just like “mine.”

Cuckoos eat insects mostly, but also eggs and chicks of other birds. It’s a brood parasite, meaning the female cuckoo lays her eggs in another bird’s nest. Perhaps that behavior explains why it is not a endangered or threatened species.

For samples of other cuckoo calls, go here.
For a list of Chinese cuckoos with the nomenclature, here is where you want to go.

Contract renewal time #4: time for health tests and reflection
June 2, 2012

CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Since China likes its foreign guests to be healthy, returning to work at Jishou University is contingent on passing a series of fairly minimal health tests that must be done here, in the provincial capital, at a testing center for all travelers coming from or going abroad.

So, the university’s tiny compliment of returning foreign teachers — four Americans, one Ukrainian and one Japanese — came together for an overnight stay here. Tanya, the voice teacher from Ukraine, and I work at the Jishou campus; the others at the Zhangjiajie campus. Although the two campuses are just 90 minutes apart, we teachers seldom have a chance to meet.

The health tests include a blood test, electrocardiogram, vision (colorblindness only, for some reason), height, weight, blood pressure and rest pulse, chest X-ray and abdominal ultrasound for both genders. We all passed, so it means we can all stay here to teach another year.

[One year, a Canadian woman failed the EKG — some kind of irregularity in her rhythm — and had to return home. No one is sure what happened to her, as she didn’t return to China.]

There’s also a long list of questions about your medical history, listing the usual suspects of communicable and non-communicable diseases, mental illness, pregnancies, operations, and so on — all of which I could mark “no” to. My medical history is really very boring: one trip to hospital for a kidney stone, a badly sprained ankle, and a bout of pneumonia when I was in the first grade.

However, my family has a history of hypertension, so I was really quite happy that my BP was 102/60, with a rest pulse of 68 bpm. For a guy’s who’s 56, those are pretty good numbers. I credit my improved diet, frequent walking and less stressful work environment. Hard to say what my BP would be like if I were still in the USA. Or my weight, for that matter.

(For comparison, before I came to China in 2008, my BP was 134/88 with a rest pulse of 77. And I weighed 80 kg (176 lbs), 4 kg or almost 9 lbs more than I weigh now. I’m 173 cm or 5’8″, by the way.)

After the medical tests, we indulged in a trip to Pizza Hut for lunch, then a shopping trip to Metro, which carries many imported products we can’t get in the hinterlands, like butter, taco sauce and refried beans, Nutella, European chocolate and cheddar cheese. We left Changsha soon afterward.

The bus ride back to Jishou was longer than usual, because of roadwork, so I had time to reflect on some matters.

One of my sophomores has been plagued with many sleepless nights, and is currently on a medical leave from school, because she’s exhausted during the day. Her doctors said there were three possible causes: anxiety, low blood supply to the brain or “neurasthenia.” The last, according to Wikipedia, is a frequent diagnosis in China to avoid using words that imply psychological problems. Mental conditions like depression are stigmatized in China, or are just plain swept under the rug, with the result that many Chinese don’t get the kind of help they really need.

Anyway, my student, S., had told me she is plagued by terrible dreams at night, which wake her up and make it hard for her to fall asleep. When I asked if she had told her doctors about the contents of the dreams, she said no. Nor the did doctors ask. So, I suggested she talk to someone about them.

But on the bus ride I had a better idea. I sent her a text suggesting she write the dreams down as a way to get them out of her head (so to speak). If she wrote in English, I said, I could read them and maybe offer some advice as a rank amateur, or ask my psychologist friends in the States for advice. At the very least, I told her, telling someone about the dreams might remove some of their power over her.

To my surprise, she was enthusiastic about this idea. And the two dreams she has shared so far as really dreadful, involving large snakes menacing schoolchildren and a river full of dying fish. I’ve asked some questions about her life to make sense of these images. I know her life has not been easy, but I don’t know much about her childhood.

Another issue on my mind during the bus ride was the lackadaisical attitude of my class of freshman English education students. Their class study supervisor, Ting, and I are both concerned. (Chinese classes have two student officers, a monitor and a study supervisor. The monitor keeps track of the teacher’s weekly lessons and attendance, while the study supervisor keeps track of assignments, tests and so on.)

My proposed resolution is for me to give a short pep talk in class on Tuesday, reminding the students that as future teachers and potential mothers (it’s an all-girl class), it’s their duty to learn English as well as they can now, while they have the time. In addition, next year they all have to take, and pass, the national college English test, CET4, which they need to graduate. I suggested Ting give a translated version after I’m done, to which she agreed.

Many of the students in this class have the desire to do well, but neither the confidence nor self-discipline necessary to succeed. Whether our little chat will make a difference remains to be seen, but it’s all I can think of right now.

Finally, I realized that the chance to teach these students and stay in China hinges almost entirely on my continued good health. As in the case of the Canadian woman, any abnormal condition would lead to my needing to return to the States, and the end of a very rewarding and enjoyable career here.

It was a sobering thought. Good health makes so many things possible.

Student video project: From Rags to Riches
June 11, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Some of my students produced these videos, but not for my class. They’re pretty good, so I’m sharing with you. Hope you can view them in the USA.

Each was done by a team of four students.

China sends first female astronaut on space mission
June 16, 2012

Chinese astronaut Liu Yang

China's first woman in space, Liu Yang, 33

JISHOU, HUNAN –While the USA is busy retiring the remaining Space Shuttles, China is busy building up its human space flight program by leaps and bounds. This afternoon, it launched its first woman taikonaut and two male colleagues on a two-week-long test of an orbiting space module.

Former fighter pilot Liu Yang 刘洋, 33, was recruited into China’s space program just two years ago. Her mission comes exactly 49 years after the launch of Valentina Tereshkova (now 75) of the former Soviet Union, who was the first woman in space and the first civilian. America’s first woman in space, Sally Ride (now 61), orbited in the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983.

Shenzhou 9 blasted off from China’s launch facility in the Gobi Desert on schedule at 6:37 pm local time. The launch was broadcast live on national TV, a sign of China’s confidence in its space program. (Of course, following the American, Russian and European space programs does give them an edge.) The three astronauts will test docking procedures with a test module, the 10.5 meter long Tiangong, and spend a about two weeks in Tiangong before coming back to the surface.

Tiangong 1 (天宫 Heavenly Palace) was put in orbit last September and is the first step toward a Chinese space station to be built by 2020. China also has ambitious lunar exploration plans, including landing a Moon rover by 2013, returning soil and rock samples by 2017, and a human Moon mission sometime after 2020.

Shenzhou 9 is China’s fourth manned space flight. With Liu on this mission are Liu Wang 刘旺, 42, also on his first space mission, and commander Jing Haipeng 景海鹏, 46, who first orbited in 2008 on Shenzhou 7. The two Lius are not related, by the way.

Liu Yang hails from Linzhou in Henan, a province near Beijing. After the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) visited her high school, she decided to become a pilot, joining the PLA in 1997. Now a major in the PLA, she has racked up more than 1,680 hours in the cockpit and has a reputation for remaining cool in emergency situations. On this mission, however, Liu will run medical experiments.

Like all of China’s female astronauts, Liu is married, but as yet has no children. In an interview with Xinhua, the national news agency, Liu said she and her husband will consider having a child after her return from space.

“I love children and life. Being a housewife and spending time with the family is a type of happiness, but being an astronaut perhaps is another type of happiness that not everyone could have,” she said, according to Xinhua.

The BBC has a complete report on the Shenzhou 9 mission, and a profile of Liu Yang.

Chinese TV news steals from Hollywood astronaut movie for news report
June 20, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Well, I started by writing a straight update on the latest Chinese space mission, now humming along nicely, thank you, when I stumbled upon yet another video copypasta by the state TV service, CCTV.

In the midst of a CCTV news report, I caught a glimpse of scenes from what I think is a Hollywood movie. Here’s a couple of screencaps to show what I mean.

What movie have these scenes been lifted from?

What movie have these scenes been lifted from?

Those two astronauts are not Chinese, and anyway, Shenzhou 9 has three astronauts, including China’s first woman in space. And the switches are in … English?

CCTV News has done this kind of shameless uncredited cribbing (a national pastime here) before. Last year, eagle-eyed viewers realized a video clip of a fighter jet being blown up by a Chinese plane had actually come from the movie, Top Gun.

Watch this report and see if you can identify the movie. It looks familiar, but I can’t place it.

OK, now on with my report, now in progress…

JISHOU, HUNAN — China is mighty proud of its three astronauts, two men and one woman, now orbiting 220 miles around Earth. CCTV International devoted nearly 40 minutes to a live feed of the automated docking between the Shenzhou 9 capsule and the Tiangong-1 orbiting module.

CCTV does not apparently permit embedding of its videos, so you can go to this link if you want to watch Chinese astronauts doing the same things as American, Russian and European astronauts have done — float around and fiddle with expensive-looking equipment.

I have to say, though, these three are all business. None of the mugging for the camera and doing airborne somersaults like Americans have done. They seem to prefer hooking their feet into restraining loops instead of floating around. Boring …. just like Chinese TV programming on Earth.

The initial docking was done by computer on Monday. Today, the Shenzhou 9 crew is scheduled to climb back inside the capsule, back out of the garage into the street, and attempt a manual docking, with commander Jing Haipeng, at the helm. The images of his joystick controller in the video should be taken with a grain of salt, however. They’re probably from the same B-movie the others were lifted from.

A girl at the crossroads between tradition and ambition
July 1, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — The term is over, and I have just finished a grueling round of reading short essays and longer research papers from 157 college juniors. This one stands out as the most poignant cause-effect essay I have ever read. It will give you a glimpse into the “other side” of China, away from all the glitz and glitter of the big cities.

The author is a transfer student, who has already finished three years of junior college and is now a year short of getting her bachelors degree. (Five years altogether). JiDa in the essay refers to Jishou University (Jishou Daxue, in Chinese). I have only cleaned up her grammar and punctuation. The rest is all hers.

[Cross-posted at Daily Kos]

This Time, May I Have to Give Up?

It is not easy for me to study in Jishou University. Even though I really want to study till my graduation, this time, it seems like that I have to give up my study.

After graduating from Hunan Foreign Trade College, it is almost impossible for me to go to JiDa, because there are massive debts in my family. My entire family doesn’t agree that I should go to JiDa. I want to go this university, because I want to accept the real higher education. So, last summer holiday, I worked very hard to earn money to go to school. But about one year later, I am meeting the same question again: my father wants me to go to work as soon as possible. I have three younger brothers, the eldest will marry at the end of the year. You know that, in Chinese mainland, a son's marriage is a costly affair. All of them are common workers, and before that, my mother got a long sick, which cost lots of loans. Most importantly, many years ago, my brother give his opportunity to go to school to me. From then on, I feel always guilty – as an eldest children in my family, I have responsibility to them, but I can do nothing to help them. But my brother used his future to exchange for my future. He give me another life.

But I am a woman with profound thinking, I am a woman with my own dream, I want to complete my education in JiDa. I want to finish my college, I clearly know that knowledge is power. Especially through an unhappy childhood, when I was very young, our family was so poor that we even have no food. I clearly remember that my mother was badly ill but there was no money to get a doctor. She was in so much pain. So I don’t want to have an unhappy future. I want to continue my school. If I abandon it, I don't know what can I do. But what I know is that the great tragedy would be a miserable childhood followed by personal tragedy.

All in all, I am at the crossroads. I do not know: what should I choose?

Finally, a blog post: bridging East and West once again
Aug. 30, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Before classes begin, it’s time to stop procrastinating and get the words in my head into print. Hopefully, they will make sense.

So, I’ve been back in China since August 9, after a wonderful month in America’s heartland visiting family and friends, and driving a lot. My Chinese students and friends are truly perplexed when I tell them my immediate family is spread out over four widely spaced states, so visiting “home” is not as easy as getting off the plane and saying, “Here I am!”

Families in China are still strongly attached to their hometowns, so when children grow up and move out (assuming they do), they typically don’t move very far away. Many parents actively discourage marriages with partners who live far away, since it means at least one half of the couple will be far, far from his or her home. These traditions are changing, of course, since Chinese are becoming more mobile than before, but at least where I live, home is where your family is closely packed.

On this trip back I was joined by my friend, Nora, who will spend a year at Wayne State College in Nebraska as a visiting international student. I’ve been the guest of Nora’s family several times, so now I got to return the favor, at least in some way. We traveled together from Jishou to Beijing by train (20 hours), Beijing to San Francisco (13 hours), SF to Denver (2 hours) and Denver to Omaha by Amtrak (8 hours). (There were a couple of overnight stays in there, by the way.) Everything excites and fascinates her. It’s Nora’s first trip abroad, and she has wasted no time in making new friends and learning new things.

This term I know 13 people from Jishou University who are now in the USA, either working or studying there. Besides Nora, there is one student at Kent State and eight at Delaware State University, a teacher in Sarasota, Florida, and a graduate and his wife in San Antonio. That’s pretty remarkable, considering how relatively small Jishou is as a city. Another student may soon begin at Loyola in Chicago, depending on her TOEFL score.

Study abroad has been a growing trend among Chinese, who now represent the largest percentage of international students in the USA, followed by India and South Korea. Some students and their families see the experience as an advantage in finding a job in China, though that advantage wanes as more and more young Chinese add that experience to their resumes. Others wanting to improve their English want full immersion in an English-speaking setting. And many, frustrated by the archaic university system in China just want to have a freer, more intellectually rewarding education abroad.

A few of these students, like Nora, are blogging their experiences online. Nora, the journalism student, uses both Facebook and QQ. Three girls in Delaware use QQ and Sina Weibo, one of China’s Twitter-like services. Through them and others, I’ve been able to share a foreign student’s first experiences in the States: riding a horse, going to the beach, attending a city fair, showing up at a formal dance without formal dress, getting frustrated at bureaucratic university regulations, meeting friendly professors and attending their first classes, getting help from police officers, eating strange food, missing home, sweating their first assignments, and dealing with their worries and troubles.

Living abroad takes guts, so I admire these students; even though we are in the same boat, at least I’ve had more experience at it.

Many foreign students report that it’s hard for them to make American friends, for various reasons. So, if you know a foreign student in the States, or your children do, make an effort to become their friend and to give them some help from time to time. Some people host exchange students, which is a big commitment, but there are other ways to help. If you live near a university with an international student center or office, consider volunteering as a short-term host or “Big Brother or Sister.” Nothing improves international relations more than the personal touch. Americans are supposed to be friendly, after all!

For my part, after four trips between China and the US, I think I’ve finally been able to adapt to the two-way culture shock that one gets switching from one very different culture to another. The culture shock goes away about the same time as the jetlag. While in the States, I indulge in those things I can’t easily get in China — cheese, pizza, good beer, bagels, Netflix. And in China, I enjoy those things I can’t get in the USA very easily — cheap taxis, decent rail service, authentic Chinese food.

In America, I have many friends and family. In China, I have many friends, and some are just like family. I hope my Chinese students and friends can soon say the same thing.


I would be remiss if I didn’t also report that three of my former Jishou students are teaching Chinese for a year in Thailand. They missed their graduation ceremony and the camaraderie that goes with it to begin a year in two small cities there with the Hanban program. Their international experience has been quite different. One of them is Chen Donlsen, who posts to Facebook pretty often, but in Chinese or romanized Thai.

BASE jumping off the Aizhai Suspension Bridge
Sept. 16, 2012

Aizhai Suspension Bridge

You know you want to base-jump off this, right?

JISHOU, HUNAN — No, not me, but as I write this post, about 40 enthusiasts are BASE-jumping off the Aizhai Suspension Bridge to land 330 meters (1,150 feet) below in the town of Aizhai, about an hour from here.

The bridge opened only a few months ago, and to attract attention to this engineering marvel, Chinese organizers created the 2012 Aizhai Bridge International BASE Jump Festival. It’s a three-day weekend affair that they hope will be an annual event.

Although Aizhai is a short hop from here, I didn’t go see the event live. I heard through the grapevine that all the buses from Jishou were jam packed and the roads were about the same. So, I am watching it on a live feed on my computer.

The Atlantic
has a short article and a jumper’s video here. It’s more interesting than what I’m seeing, which is jumper after jumper doing basically the same thing.

However, about a dozen of my students are having a more interesting time serving as interpreters and assistants for the jumpers. They’ve been excused from classes for the last week, and report being very tired but enjoying every minute of their liaison duties. I may have some photos to share later on.

China and Japan dispute who owns group of strategically placed islands
Sept. 16, 2012

disputed islands near Taiwan

Big trouble in small packages

JISHOU, HUNAN — While the local and Chinese governments draw international attention to our little part of this rock we call Earth, a more serious issue is brewing in the waters to the east, and in the streets all over China.

China is once again in a territorial dispute with one of its neighbors, Japan. And this time it’s not about fish.*

The dispute has to do with a group of small islands between Okinawa and Taiwan that the Japanese call Senkaku, the Chinese call DiaoYu and the Taiwanese call TiaoYu. As real estate they aren’t much to speak of, but they just so happen to be near suspected undersea oil and gas fields.

Japan says the islands have been part of its territory since 1895, while China and Taiwan (who agree on this!) assert the islands were Chinese territory more than 300 years before Japan annexed them in the first Sino-Japanese War.

While the three national governments exchange strongly worded communiqués, nationalistic Chinese and Japanese citizens have been taking to the streets and to the Internet to lodge their own protests.

Just this week, I got an email from the US Embassy in Beijing advising Americans to avoid street protests, as some have become free-for-alls with overturned cars and smashed shop windows. And the university has advised students to do likewise, in the interests of their personal safety.

Naturally, the Chinese government is permitting THIS kind of street protest/mob violence, if not outright encouraging it, since it suits the Party line. Many Chinese still hate the Japanese because of the 1936-45 Japanese occupation of China and the atrocities that they (and others) say Japan committed and that Japan has neither acknowledged nor apologized for. Lest Chinese never forget, TV viewers can watch several wartime dramas to remind them of those bad times. And Beijing is always ready to encourage national fervor and anti-Japanese emotions.

Needless to say, Chinese are angry that Japan claims the same islands that China and Taiwan claim, whether they realize the fuss is really as much about oil and gas supplies as national pride.

Some even wonder if China and Japan will go to war over the islands. Pretty doubtful, but both Japan and China have navy and coast guard vessels patrolling the area, which is just begging for trouble. There was a dispute just two years ago when a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese coast guard vessel collided near the islands. After Japan seized the boat and detained the crew, Chinese went to the streets and the ‘Net in a nationalistic frenzy.

Chinese protests

Chinese protest Japanese purchase of islands

Meanwhile, the US is trying to get everyone to calm down. Good luck with that.

For a good analysis of the American involvement in the dispute, check this blog at Foreign Policy.

With the help of Wikipedia and news reports, I’ve made a timeline to help explain the situation.

DiaoYu/Senkaku Islands timeline

  • 1534 year by which Taiwan and China both claim the islands were Chinese territory
  • 1895 Japan annexes islands during first Sino-Japanese War (Treaty of Shimonoseki)
  • 1900 Japanese entrepreneur Koga Tatsushiro buys the islands
  • 1945 US occupies islands after Japanese surrender; China and Taiwan have since contended the islands should have been returned to China, according to their reading of the Potsdam Declaration. Both Taiwan and China agree the islands are Taiwanese territory.
  • 1969 potential undersea oil and gas reserves identified near islands
  • 1970s Tatsushiro descendents sell four islets to Kurihara family
  • 1972 US returns islands to Japanese control. Taiwan and China officially declare ownership of islands
  • 2002-2012 Japan pays Kurihara family about 25 million yen/year to rent three of the islands
  • 2010 Ishigaki, Okinawa, which administers islands, declares Jan. 14 as Pioneering Day to comemmorate the 1895 annexation. China condemns action.
  • 4 July 2010 Chinese fishing boat collides with Japanese coast guard vessel. Crew and captain are held in custody. They are released several days later without charge. Chinese authorities protest detainment. Chinese people take to streets and ‘Net to protest.
  • 4 July 2012 activists on board a Taiwanese fishing boat, escorted by Taiwanese coast guard, plant a mainland Chinese flag on the largest island. Japanese coast guard tries to board fishing vessels, but the Taiwanese coast guard drives them off.
  • 15 August 2012 5 of 14 activists from Hong Kong land on the largest island, planting both Chinese national flags. They are arrested by Japanese authorities for violating immigration laws. All 14 are deported to HK without charges being filed. Shortly thereafter a large group of Japanese sail to the islands to hold a memorial service for Japanese who died during WWII. Ten swim ashore and plant Japanese flags on the largest island, setting angry street protests in China. Protesters overturn Japanese-made cars and smash windows of Japanese-themed businesses.
  • 11 Sept 2012 Japan pays Kuriharas 2.05 billion yen for the three of the five largest islands, Minamikojima (Nan Xiaodao 南小岛), Kitakojima (Bei Xiaodao 北小岛), and Uotsuri (Diaoyu Dao 钓鱼岛). Chinese foreign ministry gets pissed in a strongly worded communiqué. China sends patrol ships out to islands. Street protests ensue all over China.

Japan - Get out! The DiaoWu Islands belong to China!

Japan – Get out! The DiaoWu Islands belong to China!

UPDATE: This sign was in one of the university dining halls. The short translation is: “Japan, get out!” And from my window I can hear some kind of rally going on in the public square outside campus.


* China and Vietnam have been at odds over Vietnam claiming the Spratly Islands as territory. China and the Philippines are also disputing sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. Both are prime fishing areas, and may also be near undersea gas and oil reserves.

2012 Hunan Friendship Awards
Oct. 2, 2012

2012 Friendship Award winners. Look for me in the back row, far left.

2012 Friendship Award winners. Look for me in the back row, far left.

CHANGSHA, HUNAN — More than two years ago, my college nominated me for the Hunan Friendship Award (Xiaoxiang Youyi Jiang 潇湘友谊奖. So, when my foreign affairs officer Anna called to tell me I won an award, it took me a minute or two to realize what she was talking about.

It’s a pretty big deal here. Out of the 4,000 foreigners in the province, only 20 of us — six teachers and 14 businessmen — were selected for this biennial award. It’s given to foreign experts for contributions to “the economic and social development of Hunan Province.”

Friendship award plaque

Friendship award plaque

The ceremony was last week. I got a metal-and-wood plaque (above, opened)), a gold(-plated) medal, a classy red-and-gold pen, a red-and-gold thumb drive, a certificate, and a night in a ritzy hotel in Changsha. The governor of the province, Xu ShouSheng, handed out the awards. It may sound like nothing to an American, but in China government bigwigs only appear in public for really special events, like earthquakes or diplomatic visits.

(In the photo above, Xu is front row center, next to the African-American woman, teacher Jackie Martin.)

Besides all that, the uni picked up the tab for the round-trip bus fare and the two extra nights in a cheaper hotel I had booked to turn the two-day awards ceremony into a four-day holiday.

On the downside, there was no cash award and the food at the hotel was nothing special. (No chili peppers — what is up with that? We’re in freaking Hunan!) Overall, though, I came out ahead, considering my bosses and the students are bursting with pride about my winning.

It also forced me to buy a suit, my first in literally decades. It cost 893 yuan (about $140). Fittingly, my tie was a Chinese brocade that my college gave me as a Christmas gift a while back.

I’m not sure if this video is visible in the States, but here’s a news report on Hunan TV about the awards. It’s all in Chinese (sorry!), but you can look for me around 1:26.

Here’s another which I can’t embed. Around 1:50, Gov. Xu puts the medal around my neck.

The two foreigners speaking at the banquet were a French engineer working at Lysteel, Marc Burty, and Jackie Martin, a longtime English teacher who hails from Virginia and teaches at Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha.

I haven’t found an English listing of the winners, so herewith is my contribution to “all the news that’s fit to print.”

  • Noel Trinder, Australia, CEO of Better-Life Commercial Chain Share Co. Ltd.
  • Norbert Knuetter. Germany, operations manager, CSR Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive Co. (They make China’s bullet trains.)
  • Sun Pu, USA, assistant general manager, SANY Heavy Industries
  • Samantha Jenkins, United Kingdom, professor of chemistry at Hunan Normal University, Changsha
  • Lesley Jane Pereira, Australia, associate professor, Central South (Zhongnan) University, Changsha
  • Berthold Ottens, Germany, director, Global Mineral & Gem Exhibition Hall; one of his achievements was to discover a new mineral in Hunan, now named ottensite.
  • Alexey Alexeevich Andreev, Russia, researcher, Hunan Miao Wang Biotechnologies Inc.
  • Mario Pastore, Italy, general manager Changsha Xi Mai Mechanical Construction
  • Ian Lee Alberts, United Kingdom, technical director, Hunan Yingrun Biotechnologies Inc.
  • Elena Piyankovskaya, Russia, voice coach, Hunan Institute of Science and Technology, Yueyang
  • Pablo Garcia, Spain, R&D director, Hunan Norchem Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.
  • Uchida Osamu, Japan, general manager, Zhuzhou Shiling Transportation Equipment Co. Ltd., which is also involved in China’s high speed rail and city metro systems
  • David Sink, USA, project manager, Timken-XEMC (Hunan) Bearings Co. Inc. in Xiangtan
  • Jianjun Chen, USA/China, professor, Hunan Academy of Forestry; Chen is also a professor at the University of Florida
  • Peter Robinson, Australia, English teacher, Hunan Business College, Hengyang
  • Dawid Juraszek, Poland, English teacher, Hunan Institute of Technology, Hengyang
  • Rosanna Leggatt, United Kingdom, teacher, Lixian Number 6 Middle School, Changde

Most of these winners work in the more heavily populated eastern half of the province. Only Ms Leggat and I come from the more rural western half.

One for you bibliophiles, and English teachers, too
Oct. 15, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — My quietest oral English class surprised me last Thursday. They went totally ga-ga over the paperback novels I brought into class. And I fell in love.

I had a shelf full of used paperbacks I and my friend Janice have picked up at thrift stores. Looking at them, I figured it was high time to hand a few out, because they were gathering dust sitting in my office. So I picked four that I thought would be appropriate in terms of reading level, and brought them to my sophomore oral English class.

This is the all-girl class: 40 English education majors who as a group are the quietest English majors I have had so far. (There are signs of this situation changing, however.)

So, I walked into class and plunked the books down on the lectern. Since we are having an in-class English speech contest soon, the students thought the books were the prizes. I said, no, I just brought these in to share with some of you.


Hands flew into the air. Some girls got out of their seats advancing toward the lectern, still with their hands in the air. I had a brief feeling that I was soon going to be mobbed over one young-adult book and three suspense novels.

That feeling quickly changed to surprise (where was all this enthusiasm before?) to elation (they really DO like English!). I was for a few seconds completely speechless. I fell in love with this class at that moment.

I had finished up teaching them last year by telling them to work harder, get active, find some self-confidence. Don’t accept the idea that your English is poor, or that you’re not a good student. (These are three-year students, whose entrance exam scores are typically lower than four-year undergrad students’.) Keep trying, and success will follow.

Two weeks ago I found that almost half the class was going to participate in the class speech contest. That was impressive enough for such a quiet group. And on Thursday I found they are all crazy about reading English books.

Love in bloom.

So, I gave everyone a small scrap of paper to put her name on, and the slips went into a bag. I pulled out four names at random. Then, during the 10-minute break, I pulled the rest of the books off the shelf, about a dozen, and we had another drawing after the break.

My rules for book lending are very liberal. I don’t really care if the books ever come back, but I hope they will. When a student finishes a book, he or she should let a roommate or friend have it. Since I don’t keep close tabs on how many books I have, I can’t honestly say how many have actually been returned. Last year’s graduates were pretty decent about returning the books they had borrowed before they left school, though.

None of the books are literary classics. Most are murder mysteries. There’s a John Grisham in the mix. A John LeCarré. A young adult Newberry winner. They’re intended to be light reading, and (most importantly) they’ve been written within the last 50 years. Most of the novels available in the university library were written before World War II, and new books from the USA or UK are ridiculously expensive in China, especially for students.

Right now, 24 of these students hunger for books to read. I have two other oral English classes besides this one. We need books! Please!

Accolades might go to my head
Oct. 17, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — A couple of weeks ago I got an award from Hunan Province. When I came back, my deans wanted to see my plaque and medal, and were quite pleased. Then we had National Holiday and Mid-Autumn Festival, and I kind of forgot the whole thing.

Then two days ago I got word that some leaders of the university and the Xiangxi prefecture wanted to meet me. Naturally, under such circumstances, leaders don’t bother asking if you are free before scheduling a meeting. They give you a date and time, and expect you to work it into your schedule.

It’s a Chinese thing.

Anyway, I cancelled two of my oral English classes and headed on over to the main administration building. My deans were there, as were Anna from the Foreign Affairs Office, Jerry, my Chinese colleague, the v.p. of the university, and two gentlemen from the Xiangxi labor office. One I had met before, when I taught English teachers in Yongshun two summers ago.

They presented me with this. It’s a tea cup made from 99.9% silver.

Another gift for receiving the Hunan Friendship Award

Another gift for receiving the Hunan Friendship Award

OK. It’s not obvious, but the inside part is made of silver. Really. I may never drink from it, because it’s too pretty.

Coincidentally, I had been in a shop the day before with visitors to the school, and they had checked out a similar cup. The price was the equivalent of about $100, so this is not a cheesy gift.

The v.p. and the government man said a few words (not really, but you know what I mean) praising me for bringing such an honor to both the university and to the prefecture. The university man angled for some more money for his foreign experts from the government, and the labor department demurred, saying he might be able to work up a bonus of some kind. (Jerry gave me the play-by-play.)

Then we went to dinner. Mr Liu, who is really very friendly, is the labor department man. He asked me (as nearly everyone does) how long I was staying in Jishou. I replied that I was staying definitely until June 2014, then I would make a decision. Then he asked if I was single or had a girlfriend. I replied that I didn’t, but was trying to find one. Liu said as my older brother (he’s 59), it was his duty to find me a suitable wife!

In other words, they want me to stay forever.

To be honest, it’s not a terrible idea, as I like it here. The local people are certainly warm and hospitable. Forever is a long time, but maybe I should wait to see who Liu turns up. Haha!

‘Why can’t China be like America?’ a student asks
Nov. 7, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my students posted this in her Qzone (It’s like Facebook.) It’s not only a compliment to the USA, but a criticism of China.

A while ago I saw John faxed docs to the USA [That was my absentee ballot]. I wonder when we can do this in China … Just listened to Obama’s speech: “Michelle, I’ve never loved you more, I’ve never been more proud of you…” And I think in China this would NEVER happen. Meditation: why the United States in a little more than two hundred years became a world power and China with more than five thousand years’ history still is a developing country. … This is all a big disparity…

The common people of China have no say in who will be president. The Party leadership does all that work for them. Thus, we already know who will be the next president of China, even before the Party Congress rubberstamps his appointment this week. Chinese politicians are as likely to mention personal feelings in official speeches as they are to start dancing the Gangnam Style horse riding dance.

So, we may gripe about our politicians and our messy political system, but as wacked out as it is, it’s better than what many others around the world have to live with.

Thanksgiving update
Nov. 23, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — My access to Facebook is blocked again, so blogging about Thanksgiving is about the only to reach friends and family about my Thanksgiving day doings.

Needless to say, we Yanks don’t get the day off, so I still had to teach three classes: Oral English III and two sections of Western Culture.

But afterward, I joined the two other Americans and two of our Chinese friends to go out to eat dinner. Since turkey is not exactly a common bird around here, we settled for duck hotpot, potatoes, eggplant, sour radish, cabbage, and scrambled eggs with tomatoes for our feast at a place called Xiao Xi Qiao 小西桥 (Small West Bridge), known for its excellent duck hotpot 火锅. Gerry, one of the Chinese teachers, brought some homemade red wine, and we bought a bottle of Roche Mazet at the restaurant.

Then we went back to campus and shot really bad pool for a couple of hours. Since we all had 8:00 classes today, we called it a night at 9:30 pm.

Throughout the day, I got Thanksgiving messages and emails from students and friends. And today I got this gift from a friend, Carla Wu, in Huizhou. It’s a message engraved on a bamboo scroll. It says:

Thanksgiving wishes on a bamboo scroll

Thanksgiving wishes on a bamboo scroll

Dear John,

Thanksgiving Day let me know how to thank you. When I move towards you, I would like to trace the wind of spring, but you’ve given me the whole season.

You are my lifelong friend. Thank you for your generosity. Though I am not with you I will miss you all on this Thanksgiving Day.

May your life be blessed with joy, love and miracles. Season’s greetings to you all straight from my heart.

Yours, Carla.

[ADDENDUM: At the time, Carla was teaching in Huizhou. The following summer, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and by autumn of 2014, appeared to be in remission. Carla is now married and expecting a baby.]

To make a long story short, I had a good holiday. Hope yours was great, too.

PS: Many thanks to David H. and Janice Q. who sent me boxes of books and magazines to share with my students. Everyone in Oral English 2011Z1 has a book, and an assignment due next month as their final exam. They love the books, but maybe not the assignment.

Teacher technology upgrade
Dec. 1, 2012

JiSHOU, HUNAN — Last week our classrooms all became multimedia rooms. Four years of waiting, and it finally came to pass.

Here’s what the master console looks like:

I kan haz multimedia?

I kan haz multimedia?

Operation is easy. Everything starts up as soon as I unlock the console desk: screen comes down, projector lights up, Lenovo ThinkCentre boots up. Internet is not yet working, but I don’t need it immediately anyway.

They came just in time for my lectures on Western music in two weeks — part of the Western Culture course I have this term. You can see a slide in the pic from my lecture on literature this week.

This is second time I’ve taught the course, using the same all-English, Chinese-made textbook as before. This time around, I set aside the book’s chronological presentation and organized my own topical syllabus. It creates more work for me, but I hope the subject becomes somewhat more approachable. Here’s the plan. See what you think.

Quick review of Western civilization: Mesopotamia to the Modern Era
Political systems
Midterm exam
Science and Technology
Art and Music
Economic systems
Final exam

The course is only for one term, so we have to move quickly. Too quickly, I think. Each unit is two weeks long — three hours each. Excluding the final, that’s 15 weeks of classes. We lost two weeks of classes to the sport meet and the October holiday, so I dropped a planned unit on philosophy.

For me, the system is more enjoyable and (I think) easier to teach, in that I can show how each topic has evolved over the centuries. It also allows me to cut out some of the chaff in the text, which at times is overly detailed and at other times surprisingly lacking in detail. (Case in point: discussing the Enlightenment and its effects on later political events, mentioning only the French Revolution with not even the barest hint of the American one. I mean, WTF?)

To supplement the text, which the students all find too difficult to read, I’ve been posting my lecture notes in my QQ zone. Apparently, Chinese profs don’t do this. Some students say the notes are still too long, but easier to understand than the text. (You try writing about Western political systems in 500 words or less!) Written by a Chinese university professor, the textbook uses very erudite English, has few images and provides no pronunciation guides for the plethora of proper names.

Just for kicks, I typed in one paragraph from the textbook into an online readability test. The Flesch Kincaid Grade Level was 25.8, meaning it was suitable for a fluent reader of English at university or graduate school. One of my paragraphs had a score of 10.4, suitable for a high school sophomore.

I’m still writing like a newspaper reporter, I guess.

Now, while my students are in university, they are Chinese students, not native speakers of English. Their English reading level is closer to an American high school student’s than an American graduate student’s. While I can appreciate the textbook author wants to sound like a university professor, there’s a lot to be said for clarity of prose.

(The same can be said for a lot of American university professors’ writing styles, I might add. Education monographs, for example.)

The students say they are learning more in this manner, though they aren’t too crazy about all the reading in English. Quite a few also can’t get their heads wrapped around the whole topical arrangement idea, as they keep asking me which chapter of the book they should read next. (Sigh. I posted reading assignments the first week of the term. Students are the same the world over, I swear.)

My Western Culture lectures/articles 1
Dec. 2, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — You can blame David H over at my Facebook page for these multiple postings. He wanted to see them.

Seriously, I’d welcome comments and suggestions. Keep in mind I am writing for English as a Foreign Language students whose familiarity with Western history is spotty.

Also keep in mind that their appearance on these pages automatically gives them copyright protection. So, watch your fair usage there, kids!


Chinese culture developed among peoples who were closely associated in language and culture. By contrast, the culture of the West developed not in one place, but in many; not by one people, but by several separate (and contentious) civilizations. Taken as a whole, Western culture and civilization is as old as China’s, but its development has been comparatively disjointed and discontinuous.

Western culture is primarily the product of three great cultural movements: ancient Greece, ancient Rome and Christianity. But, underlying these three are more ancient civilizations dating back to 3500 BC or later: Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrews (the Jews). Clustered as they were around the Mediterranean Sea, the ancient civilizations of the West borrowed and traded ideas as much as they did goods and warfare. So, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hebrews influenced the later cultures of Greece and Rome, and the religious movement, Christianity. In addition, the trading civilization of Phoenicia contributed perhaps the most important cultural advancement, a phonetic alphabet, which other cultures adapted for their own purposes. To understand Western culture, one must know something about these seven great pillars of the West.

We could also argue that the West was shaped by conflicts with the Persian Empire beginning in the 7th century BC. with Islam, after the 7th century AD, and with the Huns and Mongols throughout the Middle Ages.

Early Western civilization was marked by nearly constant warfare and conquest. Ancient empires rose, expanded and fell. Each previous empire left something for its successors to use and improve upon, if they so chose. Vestiges of those ancient cultures are still with us today.

Links are to

Pre-classical period
Mesopotamia美索不达米亚 (now Iraq and Syria): The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers had been settled since at least 10,000 BC. The wheel was developed here about 6500 BC, and the first city-states around 4400 BC. Several kingdoms and empires – Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylon – rose and fell between 4400 and 550 BC, before the Persian Empire conquered the region. These people developed a form of syllabic writing called cuneiform 楔形文字, which was in use by 2900 BC. They left a heroic tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which inspired later stories in other cultures, and a formal set of civil laws, the Code of Hammurabi, which also influenced later cultures. They were adept at math and astronomy. Our system of 24 hours, 60 minutes and 60 seconds, and the 12 signs of the zodiac all come from Mesopotamia. They, like the Egyptians, understood medicine quite well.

Egypt古埃及:The banks of the Nile River were also settled well before 10,000 BC. The kings of Egypt, called pharaohs 法老, ruled a united Egypt beginning around 3200 BC. Unlike Mesopotamia, the Egyptian civilization was relatively stable and survived nearly 3000 years, despite two invasions. The Egyptians built the pyramids 金字塔 of Giza and the Great Sphinx 大狮身人面像 around 2600 – 2500 BC. Many other great buildings, all for the pharaoh and the ruling class, survive and are being discovered even now under the desert sands. Egyptian writing is called hieroglyphics 象形文字; after thousands of years of use, it could be used to express complex and abstract ideas. The Egyptians were also adept at astronomy and at building with stone. They were good physicians, and knew (for religious reasons) how to preserve dead bodies as mummies 木乃伊. Cleopatra 克利 帕特拉 was the last Egyptian pharaoh before the Romans finally took control of the kingdom around 30 BC.

The Minoans 米诺斯文明: As old as the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, these people developed a vigorous trading culture on the island of Crete. They left behind many public buildings, sumptuous villas and artwork, but very little literature and no clues as to their disappearance. A volcanic eruption on Crete around 1350 BC may have contributed to the Minoans’ downfall about two centuries later. Or, invasions from Mycenae, Doria and elsewhere may have doomed them as well. The Greeks were certainly influenced by Minoan art and architecture. Several traditional Greek stories take place on Crete and one mentions King Minos by name.

Phoenicia 腓尼基: These people were seafaring traders, who lived in present day Lebanon and Turkey beginning around 1350 BC. They did not build a huge empire, but they had a profound influence on the surrounding nations. First, their trading connected the Greeks, the Minoans, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Persians and others, not only by goods but also by ideas. Second, their efficient alphabet was quickly adopted by the surrounding nations. All modern Western nations and their former colonies use a version of the Phoenician alphabet. Third, their religion influenced the Hebrews, a nomadic pastoral people from the east who later founded the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and became the Jews.

Mycenae 迈锡尼文明 (1900– 1100 BC): This was the early Greek civilization. These people were warriors and invaders. One of their famous battles, against the city-state of Troy, is celebrated in Homer’s Iliad 伊利亚特, which was written down in the 9th century BC. The Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans around 1400 BC and adopted the Minoan script. Much of later Greek mythology and religion dates from this period, but the Mycenaeans left very little literature behind. What survives of their religion was written down many centuries later. Even Homer’s works, Iliad and Odyssey, were originally oral and handed down generation after generation by bards, men specially trained to memorize and deliver these long epic poems. The Mycenaeans disappeared as a civilization around 1100 BC, for mysterious reasons. Following was a 400-year “Dark Age” until the rebirth of Greek civilization around the 8th century BC. No archaeological remains have been found from the so-called Dark Age, so we can only guess what happened during that time.

Classical Period
Archaic Greece (8th century – 6th century BC): A new Greek civilization arose beginning in the 9th century BC. The earlier written language, based on Minoan script was lost, so the Greeks of this time adopted the alphabet of Phoenicia. (Greece still uses this alphabet today.) Archaic Greeks were traders and not as warlike as their predecessors, though they battled neighboring nations for land and trade routes. By the middle of the 6th century, they had established colonies all around the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to the Black Sea and from Italy to northern Africa. Trade increased the wealth of the Greek city-states and their people many times over, resulting in more leisure time for the upper classes to devote to art, music, education and literature. The written forms of Homer’s works date from this time.

Classical Greece (6th century – 4th century BC): This was the peak of Greek civilization, which historians agree was the foundation of later Western civilization and culture. Classical Greece left us beautiful art and architecture, complex literature and theater, philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, the basics of western music, and political science. The republic of Sparta and the democracy of Athens date from this time. The Greeks were strong enough at this time to defeat in 479 BC the armies of the Persian Empire, which had conquered every major civilization in the Middle East. But, because the Greeks never unified under one government, the independent city-states were unable to defend against an invasion from their northern neighbor, Macedonia, in the 4th century. King Philip conquered the Greeks, and his son, Alexander (also known as “the Great”)亚历山大大帝 expanded Greek influence with a new empire stretching from Spain to the Indus River valley in India. For a time, Alexander’s empire ruled what used to be the Egyptian, Persian and Babylonian empires, plus many smaller kingdoms besides.
Etruscans伊特鲁里亚 (8th – 3rd century BC): This was a fairly advanced civilization in northern Italy (Tuscany) that for a time controlled the area that included Rome. Probably the first kings of Rome were Etruscans. This culture was influenced a great deal by the Greeks, who had colonies in southern Italy. Etruscan art and cities had much in common with their Greek neighbors, but the Etruscans lived under a theocracy, with a king who was also the chief religious leader. In that, they were more similar to the Egyptians and Mesopotamian city-states. Historians debate whether Etruscans founded Rome, and were later conquered by the Roman state, or if other people from Italy founded Rome, who then conquered the Etruscans.

Ancient Rome 古罗马 After the Greeks, the Romans were another crucial foundation of Western Civilization. First a kingdom, then a republic, then an empire, Rome preserved Greek culture and spread it far and wide for nearly 2300 years. The only other western civilization with as long a lifetime were the Egyptians, whose empire became part of Rome around 30 BC. The Romans built roads, bridges, buildings, walls and aqueducts 渡槽 that knit their vast empire together. Their language, Latin, evolved into the Romance languages 罗曼语族 -– French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and others -– which are now spoken by millions across the world. And Latin has greatly influenced English. While the Romans were not an especially creative people like the Greeks, they preserved much of Greek culture. Additionally, the Roman emperor in AD 380 made Christianity 基督教 the official religion of the empire, giving it a much wider sphere of influence. Without Greece, there would be no Rome, and without Rome, there would be no Western culture as we know it today.

Roman Kingdom 753 BC – 509 BC: A series of elected kings (tyrants) ruled Rome, until the people toppled the last one after the military refused to serve him.

Roman Republic 509 BC –27 BC: A complex system of offices, governing bodies, and checks and balances developed to form the Roman Republic, which expanded Roman influence throughout Europe and the Mediterranean.

Roman Empire 27 BC – AD 476 (Western) AD 1453 (Eastern): Julius Caesar 尤利乌斯•凯撒, a powerful and well liked general, nearly became the first emperor of Rome, but was assassinated in 44 BC. The civil war that followed ended with his adopted son, Octavian 屋大维, becoming the first emperor. By the 2nd century, the empire had expanded to its greatest extent, with an estimated population of 88 million people. The huge empire became difficult to rule, so it was divided around AD 300 into West and East. The Western Empire, based in Rome, fell to Germanic invaders in 476, leaving a power vacuum that persisted for several hundred years. The Eastern Empire, based in Constantinople, survived to 1453, when it fell to the Muslim Ottoman Empire 奥斯曼帝国.

My Western Culture lectures/articles 2
Dec. 2, 2012

Second lecture. I removed the links of, since the entries there are in Chinese.

Western Civilization, a quick summary – part 2

Post-classical Era

Middle Ages 中世纪 (476 – roughly 1450): Also known as the medieval period of Europe, this period was characterized by many migrations and conflicts among Germanic 日耳曼 tribes who had lived north of the Roman Empire. Once they settled down, these tribes developed into kingdoms and finally nations. The nations of modern Europe can trace their origins to this period in history. Meanwhile, the Christian Church became a powerful “glue” that kept the European nations from fracturing further, preserved what learning was left from the fall of Rome, and finally became a fearsome political power. Muslims 穆斯林的人 put pressure on Europe from the south, and the Huns 匈奴人 and the Mongols 蒙古人 from the east. The Byzantine Empire 拜占庭帝国 (Eastern Roman Empire) became a unique culture quite different from Western Europe, especially after Christianity had its first great schism 基督教大分裂 (split) in the 11th century.

Feudalism 封建主义 was the primary political and economic system in Western Europe. By the 13th century, however, townspeople had gained some independence and rights of self-governance from feudal lords. Several cities founded the first universities, which also fostered original thinking. Additionally, literature from ancient Greece and Rome found its way back into Europe by way of Muslim scholars. This led to a “mini-renaissance” in science, literature, art and philosophy, which paved the way for the greater Renaissance that followed. Notable figures were Petrarch 彼特拉克 and Dante 但丁 in Italy, Aquinas in France and Chaucer 乔叟 in England.

Trade with the Far East expanded the merchant class and Europeans’ knowledge of the wider world, while introducing plague 黑死病 to the citizenry. The Black Death of the 14th century decimated the population; rich and poor alike were its victims. While tragic, the plague also gave the survivors a chance to move up in the world, and weakened the feudal system.

Renaissance 文艺复兴 and Reformation 新教改革 (roughly 1450 – 1650): Western culture flourished during this period, as Europeans threw off the confining worldview of the medieval period and experimented with new ways of expression and thought. Nearly every human enterprise took on new life. Art, music, literature, philosophy, political science, natural science and mathematics all blossomed. The power of the Roman Catholic (Christian) Church waned, both in terms of politics and in theology. The Reformation led by Luther and Calvin divided Christians into two hostile groups: Catholic and Protestant. This split led to persecution and warfare that lasted hundreds of years. In the east, the Muslim Ottoman Empire conquered the last remaining part of the ancient Roman Empire, and pressed into eastern Europe. Conflicts and animosity among members of the different religions still persist today.

In 1492 the Italian merchant Christopher Columbus 克里斯托弗·哥伦布 convinced the rulers of Spain that he could find a shorter sea route to the Far East by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, he found the American continents. The accidental discovery led the nations of England, France, Spain, Portugal and Holland to explore and colonize the Americas, Africa and Asia. Their expansion led to more political conflicts among themselves, but also great progress, as new products and discoveries improved European knowledge.

The Enlightenment 启蒙运动 (1650 – about 1750): Religion became less important to scholars and thinkers during this time, as science developed in leaps and bounds. This was the time of Kepler and Newton, who proved the Earth was not at the center of the universe, and that Nature followed simple and understandable laws. Political philosophers suggested that everyone had natural rights that belonged to them as a birthright, and that they had the right to replace governments, even kings, who failed to support or recognize those rights. These rights did not depend on one’s religion or even on God’s existence. Adam Smith 亚当•斯密 of Scotland formulated the idea of the “free market” and laissez-faire (“hands-off”) capitalism.

The new colonies flourished, some more than others, and attracted a wide variety of personalities as colonists. Some went to make money, others to escape the oppression of the Old World. In time, the political and economic ideas of the Enlightenment led the American colonists to revolt against King George III in 1776 and the French peasantry to overthrow King Louis XVI 13 years later. In turn, those revolutions inspired many others. But, in the meantime, the English, French and Spanish Empires expanded their hold on the colonies.

18th and 19th centuries (about 1750 – 1900): Industrialization, electricity, the steam engine and other technological improvements expanded the middle class and made the rich richer, but at the same time expanded the poor and working classes. There was a shift away from farming and rural life toward factories and city life. During this time, Europe and America finally abolished slavery and began efforts to improve the life of the poor and uneducated. The British Empire reached its greatest power, as its colonies continued their struggles for independence. Europe finally won its long struggle against the Ottoman Empire and tried to conquer China and Japan. Scientists began to question the truth of the Biblical account of Creation. Marx and others called for new economic and political systems, like socialism and communism. The camera, the telegraph and the telephone made it possible for more people to learn about the farthest reaches of the world almost immediately. The United States, which had created a new form of government from the ground up, doubled its size in 1803 and continued to enlarge its borders at the expense of the Spanish empire.

The 20th century: This was the century of two World Wars, the first atomic bombs, the birth of automobiles, airplanes, radio, television and motion pictures (and much later, computers and cellphones), the Great Depression, and the demise of the British Empire. Communists in Russia staged a successful revolution in 1917. Russia expanded its control of neighboring countries and became the Soviet Union. The USA became another dominant world power, and its influence reached around the world. There was a growing youth culture that persists today, especially in the music world. Taboos against criticism of religion, premarital sex, nudity, and homosexuality eroded, first in Europe then in the USA. Women in America got the right to vote in elections, and feminism became a driving force. Non-whites in the USA and elsewhere demanded equal rights and protection under the law, recalling the ideals of the Enlightenment. The USA lost its first war, but continued to act as the “policeman” of the world. Humans entered outer space for the first time, and scientists explored the universe in greater detail. At the same time, people began to worry about the future of the planet, as pollution increased and oil reserves were drained.

Follow this link to see an online timeline of civilizations and events.

Busy again, so just a quick post
Dec. 12, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today is 12/12/12. Celebrate however you like, a dozen doughnuts, 12 ounces of your favorite drink, 12 chocolate eclairs, 12 shots of JD — whatever. Another day like this won’t come for another 89 years.

(Think about it. We can’t have 13/13/13 and so on. So, we have to wait until 1/1/2101.)

Tomorrow is Saint Lucia Day. If your family isn’t Swedish or Norwegian, then nevermind. Conversely, you can lie to your kids and persuade the eldest daughter to wake up early and serve you coffee and pastries in bed. Hey, it could work!

On a more serious note, the world lost two great musicians recently, both at remarkably advanced ages. Dave Brubeck died at 91, a day before his birthday. Ravi Shankar died at 92.

Brubeck was one of the pioneers of “cool jazz” in the 1950s. His most known number is Take Five, which has been covered by so many musicians (including China’s 12 Girls Band) that it’s impossible to list them all. I was fortunate to hear him in concert back in the ’80s. A great musician, and a really nice man. Five of his six children became musicians.

Here is Brubeck and his group playing Take Five in 1966. Paul Desmond, the composer of the piece, is playing alto sax.

Meanwhile, Shankar brought Indian sitar music to the world beginning in 1956. He collaborated with many Western musicians, including (famously) George Harrison of The Beatles. Shankar’s two daughters, Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones, are also wonderful musicians, with very different styles.

Here is Ravi and Anoushka Shankar playing in 1997 (It’s 11 minutes long, so be prepared).

My Western Culture articles/lectures 3: Music, part 1
Dec. 18, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — This is the article I posted for my students to read before class last week. I didn’t lecture, but played the selections indicated in the article and made brief comments.


This is the first article about Western music. Please read this before class. We will listen to the music in class, instead of my giving a lecture.

Western Music

How is Western music different from other cultures’ music? One major difference is the pitch 音乐音高 of the notes used.

Most world music, and Chinese music, is based on a pentatonic (five-tone) scale 五声音阶: do re mi sol la (do)

Most Western music is based on diatonic 全音阶 (or heptatonic – seven-tone) scales, such as the familiar: do re mi fa sol la ti (do)

Putting it another way, let’s look at the keyboard of a piano.

You can play pentatonic tunes using only the black keys. To play diatonic tunes, you also need some (or all) of the white keys.

The origin of the diatonic scale dates back to ancient Greece, but perhaps earlier cultures in the Near East also used it. Seven-tone scales are also part of music from the southern part of India.

The musicians of the European Middle Ages established diatonic scales as standards, using ancient Greek musical theory as their guide. They identified eight modes, each one starting on a different note in the scale. Later musicians added other modes. Only two have survived as commonly used modes:

the major scale: do re mi fa sol la ti do (called the Ionian 爱奥尼亚 mode after 1547)

the minor scale: la ti do re mi fa sol la (called the Aeolian 风成 mode after 1547)

(Technical note: More specifically, most Western music uses whole tones W and half tones H as standard pitch differences.

The major scale goes like this: do W re W mi H fa W sol W la W ti H do.

Another way to look at it is to use the piano keyboard above. Starting at C, white keys separated by black keys differ by a whole tone W, while those that don’t have black keys between them (E and F, and B and C) differ by a half-tone H. Also, there is a half-tone H difference between neighboring white and black keys.)

The ancient Greeks and Romans left us very few written records of their music. The written musical history of the West really begins in the Middle Ages.

Middle Ages

The music of the Middle Ages centered around two main activities: worship in church and entertainment among the aristocracy.

Gregorian chant was the primary style of church music from about the 4th century until about the 13th century. It was monophonic 单音音乐, meaning everyone sang the same notes at the same time. At first, it was for voice only, but later organ and other accompaniment 伴奏 was added. Chants were sung using one of the eight modes then in use.

Selection 1: Gloria in excelsis deo (Glory to God in the Highest) – Gregorian chant, in Latin, 9th century(?)

There were also songs by troubadours, who were traveling musicians. They wrote for a single voice, though perhaps there was simple instrumentation, such as the lute, which resembles the pipa 琵琶 but has more strings, or the recorder, a kind of flute. Most of these songs are now lost. This love song is from the 12th century. The language is Occitan, a local language of the Languedoc region of France.

Selection 2: A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria, troubadour song, 12th century, France

Later songs became more complex in design. Guillaume de Machaut (France, 1300-1377) lived during the time of Dante and Chaucer. He wrote music for church and everyday life. This is a love song for a small group of singers.

Selection 3: Doulz viaire gracious (Sweet Gracious Face), rondeau, Machaut, 14th century, France


Sweet gracious face, I have served you with a sincere heart,
If you will have pity on me,
Sweet gracious face,
If I am a bit shy, don’t embarrass me,
Sweet gracious face, I have served you with a sincere heart.

Renaissance music (1450-1600)

Music of the Renaissance became more complex. Composers introduced polyphony 复音音乐– different notes sung or played at the same time and counterpoint 对位法 — different rhythms sung or played at the same time. There was also use of the growing number of instruments available at the time.

Instruments: violin, lute, guitar, harp, recorder, several kinds of reed instruments, like crumhorn, cornamuse and shawm

Selection 4: Kyrie, from Requiem Mass, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (Italy, 1526-1594 — the time of Copernicus, and young Shakespeare) – This is church music.

Madrigals were the “pop music” of the day. Most were cheerful and dealt with love in all its forms. Shakespeare used some for his plays. Palestrina also wrote madrigals. This one, however, is from England.

Selection 5: Now Is the Month of Maying, madrigal, Thomas Morley, England, late 16th century

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.

Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play barley-break? Fa la.

Nymphs were a kind of woodland spirit, like a fairy. Here, the word refers to pretty girls. Barley-break was an old phrase for “having a roll in the hay,” that is, making love outdoors. Pop music has not really changed much in 400 years.

Baroque period (1600-1750)

This period begins in the late Renaissance and extends into the Enlightenment. Composers expanded the use of polyphony and counterpoint, and expanded the use of harmony 和声– playing/singing different notes at the same to make a pleasing, full sound.

Baroque music (as well as baroque art and architecture) uses a lot of fancy “ornamentation,” meaning that there are many notes played or sung very quickly. The number of singers was greater, and the newly available instruments were generally louder than their Renaissance forebears.

Instruments: organ, harpsichord, clavichord, various wind and brass instruments, harp, guitar, lute

Early baroque composers included Giovanni Gabrielli and Claudio Monteverdi of Italy, and Heinrich Schuetz of Germany. Somewhat later, other famous composers were Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti (Italy) and Henry Purcell (England).

Two well known musicans of the late baroque era are Georg Friedrich Handel, who was born in Germany but later moved to London, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Both composed for voices and for instruments.

Selection 6: Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ, J.S. Bach 巴赫, about 1705

Selection 7: Choruses from Messiah: “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” “Hallelujah,” Handel亨德尔, 1742 (using lines from the King James Bible:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given:
and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace
– Book of Isaiah chapter 9, verse 6.)

[Most of the students recognized the Hallelujah chorus, to my surprise.]

Classical period (1750 to 1820)

Music during this time became less “fancy” and more dramatic than baroque music. There were many composers during this time, but the best known are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig von Beethoven, who were all born in German-speaking cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

Beethoven can also be considered as a member of the Romantic movement, because of the emotional impact of his works.

Piano music became very popular at this time. Earlier keyboard instruments, like the harpsichord of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, made very soft and gentle sounds. It was difficult to play them loudly without damaging the instrument. Around 1700 another keyboard instrument was developed, the fortepiano. (Forte is Italian for loud, piano is Italian for quiet.) It could be played softly or loudly quite easily. By 1800 there were enough fortepianos available for composers to write for them.

At the same time, there were more and louder wind instruments available. Orchestras grew in size and volume.

Selection 8: Piano Concerto No. 24, Allegro, Mozart莫扎特, 1800

Selection 9: Symphony No 5 in C minor, Allegro con brio, Beethoven贝多芬, 1804-1808

[The students all recognized the dum-dum-da-dum of the the Fifth Symphony.]

Romantic period (1815-1910)

Romanticism was a broad movement in the arts, including music and literature, which opposed the growing industrialization and urbanization of Europe. Composers looked for inspiration in their national folk music traditions or “exotic” themes from gypsy culture or the East. They tried to create music that deeply affected their audience’s emotions. Orchestras were now quite large, with perhaps as many as 100 musicians. European opera, a combination of theater and music, also became very popular at this time.

Selection 10: 1812 Overture, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky 柴可夫斯基, Russia, 1880 — Representing a key battle between France and Russia during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. It includes the French national anthem, to represent the invading army, and church bells and folk tunes, to represent the Russian people. The composer also called for real cannon fire for dramatic effect.

Selection 11: Flight of the Bumblebee, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Russia, 1900 — Flight of the Bumblebee, originally written for violin, has a main theme resembling the noise of a bee. It was used as the theme “song” for a long-running American radio drama called The Green Hornet. When the show was adapted for TV in the 1960s, the theme was adapted for jazz trumpet. (This TV show co-starred Bruce Lee 李小龙, by the way.) It reappears in the movie Kill Bill. The 2011 movie version of The Green Hornet, co-starring Jay Chou 周杰伦, also includes the theme in its soundtrack.
Selection 11a: The Green Hornet theme, played by Al Hirt, 1966

Modern period (Early 20th Century)

Modernism affected nearly every Western art form. As in literature and art, musicians explored music outside traditional forms. Some compositions are very challenging to the listener, such as works by Arthur Schoenberg 阿诺德·勋伯格 (Austria) and Igor Stravinsky 斯特拉文斯基 (Russia), who avoided traditional methods of composition altogether. Others, like Claude Debussy 德彪西 and Maurice Ravel 拉威尔 (France) and George Gershwin 格什温 (USA), created more pleasant-sounding works that were still innovative.

Selection 12: Piano-Rag Music, Stravinsky, 1919 — Ragtime piano was a popular style of the first decade of the 20th century. Stravinsky, however, did not compose a normal ragtime tune. The style is entirely his. The rhythm changes several times and there is no clear melodic line.

Selection 13: Bolero, Ravel, France, 1928 — This work for orchestra repeats the same theme over and over, over a steady drum beat, as the main theme passes from one instrument to another. Meanwhile, the volume gets gradually louder. Bolero is a Spanish dance style, and the work was intended to portray a bolero dancer’s gradually more energetic dance. However, some have suggested the work can also represent sexual intercourse, an idea repeated in a 1980 American movie called 10.

Selection 14: Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, USA, 1924 — The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, mostly wrote popular songs for Broadway shows. But this is a “serious” work for piano and band that combines classical style with jazz, blues and pop styles popular in the 1920s. Many people associate it with New York City, the Gershwins’ hometown. Part of it is used in TV advertisements for United Airlines.

Aside from these kinds of serious music for theatrical audiences, there was also a flourishing in the 20th century of popular music made possible by three inventions: the phonograph, the radio and the television. Now, people could listen to any kind of music they preferred, and musicians could expand their audiences very quickly to include millions. That’s the topic of the next article.

Just as a reminder: © John J. Wheaton, 2012

A little holiday confusion here
Dec. 21, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — So I got a Christmas stocking with candy inside this week from our students. The candy is OK, but the stocking is a bit disturbing. Check it out.

Hallowmas stocking

Hallowmas stocking

The picture shows a Christmas witch on a broom delivering gifts.

Clearly someone at this candy company needs to bone up on his or her Western holiday mythology. Or maybe Mrs Claus has been moonlighting.

The stocking says “Kinder / Happy fania” at the bottom.

First of all, the stocking did not contain any Kinder Buenos, Hippos, Surprises — indeed, no real Kinder confections at all. Not even anything chocolate. Very disappointing.

I’m not sure what to make of “Happy fania” — “Happy family”, maybe?

Merry Christmas! 圣诞节快乐! (sheng dan jie kuaile)
Dec. 24, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Our college’s annual Christmas extravaganza has been put to bed, this year featuring more dances than I can ever recall. Even we teachers danced. (Video may be forthcoming).

We foreign teachers (all five of us) had dinner with the president of the university, the v.p., and the deans of our colleges. Unless my memory is faulty, this was the first time the president has joined us. The food was delicious and ample — quite suitable for a Christmas dinner.

I have received about a bushel of apples today (OK, really just a half dozen apples), because the Chinese have acquired the custom of giving an apple on Christmas Eve. If I’m not mistaken, this is an English custom.

And just now I was on a video chat with five former students, including one in Thailand. They all graduated in June. Another guy called me from Shanghai. (I think he was a little drunk.) A gazillion people sent me messages on QQ tonight.

One friend has promised me a handmade scarf, but was profusely apologetic for it not being on time or in my favorite color, and being so simple. I told her it makes no difference, because the most important thing is the love behind the gift. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Faith, hope and love — but the greatest of these is love. Paul at least got that part right.

May you all have a wonderful holiday. (If you don’t celebrate Christmas — apply my wishes liberally to a festival of your choice.)

The dance video, as promised
Dec. 25, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here’s the dance we teachers did Christmas Eve. A student shot the video, so the quality is not quite professional, but you can at least get the idea.

If you can’t view the video, you can download it from my server. Right-click to download, or click to view in a separate window.

And here’s a photo of the whole crew.

Cast and crew of 2012 IEC Christmas show

Cast and crew of 2012 IEC Christmas show

New panorama of Jishou University
Dec. 25, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — Here is a new view of the Jishou University campus, from the new high rise apartment complex near the southwest corner of the campus. I didn’t take this photo, and I need to track down a higher resolution image.

Jishou University, looking northeast

Jishou University, looking northeast

The old panorama, which a previous foreign teacher took from the top of my apartment building, is at Wikimedia. Since it was taken in 2007, a new dorm and several new buildings outside the university have gone up.

Another Italian earworm by way of China
Dec. 28, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — During the Christmas party, one of the acts was a dance, qǐng nǐ qià qià 请你恰恰, by some juniors in class 4. The tune was one of those catchy ones that sticks in your head for days. And, it’s from the same studio that gave me — and China — another earworm, the “Rabbit Dance.”

So, here are the students performing the dance.

Again, if you can’t view the embedded video, you can download or watch it from this link.

You’ll notice that some of the male dancers are in fact female dancers. Our college’s student body is predominantly female, but I found at least one professional performance online by a woman dressed as a man. So, there’s a precedent!

Because my mind works this way, I spent some time trying to track down the source of this tune, and the dance. It’s sort of cha cha, but not really, and there are hints of electro/house/Eurodance mixed in with the Latin beat. If you’ve listened to Aqua, you’ll know what I mean.

So, here’s the skinny. The Chinese title, Qing Ni Cha Cha, which means, “Please Will You Cha Cha?” sounds very close to the original English title, Chilly Cha Cha.

Here are the timeless lyrics, from Lyrics Time:

* Baila chilly cha cha baila chilly cha
Dance your chilly dance your cha cha baila chilly cha cha
Dance so feel your body hot you got another shot
Feel your body shake your body hot

[Repeat * , *]

Baila baila chilly cha cha senorita
Baila baila chilly cha cha senor
I give you another chance, you can clap your hands
Shake your body chilly cha cha dance

** Baily baily baily baily baila
And dance and dance and dance and dance and dance
So feel your body hot you got another shot
Now you can dance your chilly cha cha stop

*** Ay Ay Ay, this chilly cha cha muy bonito
Ay Ay Ay, lo que siento en el corazon
Ay Ay Ay, this chilly cha cha calentito
Ay Ay Ay, to dos le bailan si senor

Chilly cha cha

[Repeat * , *]

[Repeat ** , ***]

Dance your cha cha, si

The artist is (supposedly) Jessica Jay, who as best I can tell, is just a catchy name for a group of studio musicians. I couldn’t find any photos of Jessica Jay; the closest I could come to confirming her existence is a rather imaginative bio at the website of the SAIFAM Group.

The bio reports that the elusive Miss Jay had earlier had a big hit in Thailand. And indeed, I found an assortment of covers of Chilly Cha Cha by a variety of acts from Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and China! Chilly Cha Cha is also a popular line dance tune, as well as an excuse for nearly any kind of Latin dance. Search on YouTube for Chilly Cha Cha and you’ll see what I mean.

SAIFAM is the same group that created another earworm/dance craze in China, the “Rabbit Dance” — also known as Penguin’s Game — which students seemed to perform at nearly every function I attended my first two years here. Typically, only the “bunny hop” part of Penguin’s Game was performed. The “group” in the case was Gelato, which again was just an ad hoc name for some studio musicians (or for a studio mix, for that matter).*

The Italian-based SAIFAM Group is a dance music factory, judging from the number of “acts” they “manage,” s reported by this Eurodance website. It’s the kind of group that churns out compilations of dance music for DJs to spin — not unheard of even in the USA. K-Tel made a mint by releasing compilations of tunes by well known acts.

And judging from Chilly Cha Cha and the Penguin Dance, SAIFAM seems to have found a niche marketing catchy music here in China.

* I’m not knocking studio musicians, by the way. These guys and gals work in the background to support the “stars,” who may or may not have more talent than the studio musicians themselves. Sometimes, studio musicians form their own bands — like Toto — and make it big, too.

Are most academic theses merely regurgitating others’ work?
Dec. 29, 2012

JISHOU, HUNAN — This question is addressed in all seriousness to you academics out there, specifically those with more experience reading bachelor’s and master’s theses in Western countries. I ask because most theses that I’ve been reading here just seem to be retreads of the same basic paper, with little or no original thought in them.

Students ask me to read over their theses, for grammar and what not. Maybe in all I’ve read a dozen bachelor’s or master’s thesis, which for the most part are absolute drivel. The assignment seems to be a pro forma exercise toward obtaining their degree. Whether the paper makes any contribution to world knowledge seems not so important.

Is this strictly a Chinese thing? Or is it because this university is a third-tier institution? Or is it more widespread? In other words, are most American graduation theses also merely summaries of what others have published?

Let me explain further. Our Business English majors have to write a 6,000 to 8,000 word graduation paper in English in their senior year. The college has a list of about 50 suitable topics, such as, the difficulties of the translation of contracts, cross-cultural business negotiation strategies, the translation of movie and TV subtitles, or choosing appropriate brand names and trademarks for foreign trade. Since we graduate more than 100 students each year, inevitably some students end up choosing the same topic.

There may be several reasons why the college encourages students to choose their topics from this list. As far as I know, very few students have developed their own topics.

Master’s theses, of course, are more original, but in my very limited experience with those, not much more original. There is the required review of the literature, of course, but after reviewing what others have written about topic X, there is little or no original contribution to the subject. It’s like the same topic gets reused over and over until it practically falls apart from age.

Plagiarism, I’ve found, is endemic here. That’s a large part of the problem. Colleges do check papers for originality, but plagiarism applications can be fooled if the writer paraphrases or summarizes sufficiently. And the penalties for plagiarism are next to nothing, at least where I teach. (I won’t even go into how widespread cheating on the national English and computer exams is. Some proctors choose to ignore it, while others are very strict. There is no uniformity in quashing cheating, if indeed there is any requirement to stop it.)

But I don’t want to malign China’s scholarship as being largely unoriginal without knowing if unoriginality is an issue in most universities around the world. I’m hoping some university professors reading this can give me an idea.

Go to Chapter 6 –>

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