The Flickering Night Lights

The engine shifts from a high wine to a low growl as a foot presses down the clutch and slams the gear shift into third. Tires screech as the car weaves nimbly, back and forth, back and forth. The clock ticks as the driver races to his destination. You'd think this was a formula one race, but you'd be wrong.

Welcome to the inside of a Chinese taxi cab.

"Oh God, we're dead," my friend Barry says as the taxi driver tries to slip between a pair of buses. The bus on the right doesn't seem to see us and is merging into our lane. This doesn't phase our driver, who speeds up and lays on the horn, waving his other hand in the air, muttering in Chinese.

"What's he doing?!" Dan, asks. After narrowly escaping being crushed to a smooth paste, we've emerged from between the two buses only to swerve across four lanes of traffic to dodge a clump of slow moving cars. The four lanes are rapidly becoming two as the outer lanes are blocked off by a concrete wall, protecting workers who do road repairs during the day. Just as deftly as the driver dodged the cars from behind, he slips in front of them now, with under a hundred feet to spare between us and the wall.

You'd think I was describing a one time event, something that happened to the group of us once while we were riding through Wuhan. You'd be wrong again. It'd be more accurate to say that I'm describing a weekly ritual.

On the weekends several of the boys, including myself, enjoy going out to an Irish pub called the Toucan. Being British, most of my friends are die hard futbal fanatics and take any opportunity they can get to catch games, which are regularly shown at the pub.

By the time we arrive wide eyed, dizzy, and somewhat pale, we stumble out of the cab and pay the drivers, who we must admit, often save us a little money by getting us to the pub so quickly. Too bad they don't realize that we're probably trading years off the end of our lives. One of these days I'm going to learn how to say slow down in Chinese.

The Toucan is an interesting pub; it's a hotel pub nestled in the back of a gigantic Holiday Inn. It's a draw for a lot of ex-pats in the area, giving westerners a place to congregate with people of like culture and language. There are also a surprising number of Chinese people who come to the bar as well, about half of them women, likely looking for a western husband. A live band also comes to the pub, which is universally hated by our group since they drown out the futbal game half the time, and are terrible on top of it. There's also a fuse-ball table (the most common fixture of western bars in China) and a lovely outer room, where we can usually sit and watch the games unmolested by the pub's other patrons.

The best part about the pub, other then the futbal, is the western food they serve. It's crazy expensive, but it's a nice change of pace from the typical Chinese cuisine we subsist on normally. I ordered a pizza there one week with pepperoni, sausage, ham, and two other meats that I can't think of right now on top. It was epic. Next month, I'm going to try the steak sandwich.

What's really going to be fun is when the Six nations and Tri nations cups start up, the big rugby matches in Europe and the Pacific respectively. I haven't watched rugby in nearly four years, but I have fond memories of it from my time in Australia.

It's quiet right now at my apartment, other then the barking of a pack of stray dogs which sometimes rove around the campus. I mentioned a while back that I was reading Wuthering Heights. I've since finished it (it was good by the way) and moved on to The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count is a monster of a book, and I'll probably be on that one for a while, though I don't mind by any means. It's been great so far.

Tomorrow I'm leaving for Hangzhou and Nanjing, so it will be a while before you hear from me again. Take care everybody.


Turn in the Weather...

Chinese weather is funny. Since I arrived here in late August, the weather has been hot. When I go outside, it looks like I've just taken a shower by the time I get anywhere. It's especially noticeable when I go jogging, or play sports with the other English teachers. I get so hot that sweat runs down in between my fingers. As a person who doesn't sweat much, that's crazy hot.

Last night, autumn just showed up, all at once. The temperature dropped around twenty degrees. A high wind kicked up as we (the English teachers) sat on the roof talking and drinking. This morning it is much cooler, and rain is steadily falling outside my apartment.

We're getting ready to take our first trip now that the autumn season has begun. This week marks the moon festival here in China, a celebration of the incoming harvest and the autumn equinox. I don't actually work this week. Two weeks from now (October first through the seventh) we receive even more time off for the double nines festival. Nine is considered to be a positive number in Chinese culture (standing for the yang in yin yang of Taoism), so during the ninth day of the ninth month (according to the Chinese calendar) the Chinese celebrate this auspicious omen of good fortune.

A week from now twelve of us will be boarding a train for a pair of ancient cities in eastern China, Nanjing and Hangzhou. I'm pretty pumped for it. It will be my first real chance to look around since I've been here.

Which one of us is supposed to be the grasshopper again? Because I'm confused.

On Thursday morning I woke up with all the excitement of a zombie rising from the grave in a world without brains. It was time to teach my first two English classes, and while the first day is supposed to be easy, (Just introduce yourself right? Yeah. Right.)I was still feeling nervous.

Here were, in essence, my expectations when I arrived from the states: I will have a room filled with students who can understand and speak basic English. Furthermore, there will be a nice book that gives me a general outline for the course. It will give me a foundation to lay my own lesson plans upon. There will also be some nice Chinese teachers who can help me with planning my lessons and provide me with a curriculum to follow for the class.

I'm beginning to notice an alarming note of madness in my laughter these days. Who can say what's causing it?

The first thing that I found out was that the book is nearly useless as far as the class that I am teaching goes. There are some good topics inside, but most of the activities are all wrong for an ORAL English class. The idea of the class is to get the students to talk aloud and practice their English word use and pronunciation. The book on the other hand is half filled with listening and grammar activities.

The second thing I found out is that the advice I received for the class usually went something along the lines of "get them talking." Wow, thanks. The co-teachers, meanwhile, handed us the books for the class and told us to have at it. This was about as far as they went in helping us plan a curriculum.

I beat my head against the wall during the days before trying to figure out something I could teach my students if my introduction and syllabus speech ran out. (which they inevitably would, I didn't want to waist my student's time blabbing for two hours)

Now back to Thursday.

I walked across campus in the poring rain to my classroom. I had no umbrella. I was wrapped in my shower curtain which isn't exactly water proof. There are dolphins printed on it in bright colors.

I arrived early to an empty classroom. I plugged in my external hard drive, pulled up my power point, and waited for the bell to ring. Slowly my students filed into the room. I shuffled to the front in my waterlogged shoes.

"Hello," I said to them.

"Hello," they replied.

This was the bright point of the class.

From there on I proceeded to introduce myself. I received glazed looks from the class. Then I had the class do its first activity. I walked around to several students and tried to get them to introduce themselves to me. Four out of the first five students I spoke to couldn't understand a word that I said. They got a neighboring student to help them say "my name is" when I wouldn't leave them alone. This of course destroyed every lesson plan that I had prepared for the day.

I managed to stumble through two forty five minute class periods with these guys. I poked and prodded, trying to get them to speak English in as many ways as I, a completely untrained English teacher, could invent. I had wisely bought along my ESL book and in it were a series of simple English words that we could practice.

Add to the lack of English ability, Chinese culture. There is a term in Chinese that I can't recall at the moment, but it can be translated as "face". The concept of face can be related to that of reputation. Chinese culture practically worships face, especially the earning and maintaining of it. You know what a great way to lose face is? Give the wrong answer to the teacher while in class! This insured that I met with stony silence any time I asked them a question to which I hoped they would respond.

By the time it was over, I was feeling pretty depressed, and as I mentioned in the last post, overwhelmed. One of the veteran English teachers tried to encourage me afterwards, telling me that he had a similar experience when he first started.

"Everyone has to go through the initial trial by fire," he told me.

I thought it might be better to compare it to skinny dipping in lava, but you know, whatever. Apples, oranges.

Fortunately, I thrive under stress. Failing the first day only caused me to redouble my efforts for the next. And I did learn some extremely useful lessons. (all told I taught four separate classes)

The first thing that I learned is that you must break the ice between yourself and the students. The easiest way to do this is to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Be willing to make a fool of yourself. The easiest way to do that is to try and say Chinese words. The students find this hilarious.

The second thing is to build up to desired outcomes slowly. My personality isn't one to do things by degrees naturally. I wanted the students to speak to each other and to me, and I wanted them to do it right away. I've spent some time helping them build confidence in this area this week, and the results have been phenomenal. I will spend even more time doing it in the future. I'm hoping that by the last two weeks we might have some full blown class discussions.

The rest of it is technical enough to be boring, even to me, so I won't tell you about it. Suffice it to say that when week two came, I was back with a vengeance. English class didn't know what hit it. I actually got my students laughing and having a good time, which is more important than you would think.

I think the best way to sum up the last two weeks, teaching wise, is this. Teaching was much like a toaster. It left me feeling like a piece of toast that got left in just a little too long, and now is a black around the edges. But don't worry. I'm still edible. Things are settling down. Overall, I feel optimistic having met with some success, and I'm beginning to shift gears from thinking about teaching all the time to thinking about other things like writing and leisure activities. I'm also trying to figure out where I want to go for Chinese new year so I can start putting money away.

Before I go I've got to give some shout outs.

First, Chris Mckeever gets a shout out for setting me up with the Harbrace Handbook. That thing has been my constant friend and companion, reminding me about lots of important grammar stuff. Thanks Chris.

Second is Mark Wagner. I just like that guy.

Don't y'all be strangers now. See ya later.


As the days tick by...

Between lesson planning, exercise (which I have been doing a lot of), and hanging with the other western teachers, I've been trying to distill my experiences so far into a single word.

I think that word is overwhelming.

Now, don't think that I'm feeling discouraged. I'm actually in high spirits today. But the word stands. As someone who enjoys the routine when it comes to doing a job I haven't had anything so far that resembles one. But as each day passes, I feel more comfortable. (or perhaps I've just been jogging and weight lifting so much that I'm too tired to feel stressed out. heh, heh) I'll try to tell you a little about my time here now that I've got a couple of weeks of Chinese residence under my belt.

Where to begin? I guess I'll start with my mornings.

So far, I only work two days a week, Thursday and Friday. Every other day of the week I can get up any hour I want and do whatever I want. Usually, my first morning activity is to go for a jog (or go to the weight room, I alternate). For starters, it's been a great way to burn off stress, and second, I've been using my jogs to explore the university campus. A lake lies about a hundred feet from my apartment building. There is a brick path that lines it for two or three miles, so I usually go for a jog on that. It's not as crowded during the day as the streets of the campus. As far as urban China goes, the path is scenic. Trees and grass line it every step of the way. Little Chinese men in straw hats sit on the bank amongst the lotus flowers and fish with great big fishing poles. I'm talking fifteen feet long. Some of them have stools that they take out into the water and perch on. It's also amusing to try and sneak up on Chinese couples (while jogging) that are cuddling or making out. This is especially easy to do at night.

There are a few neat landmarks that line the path. The first is a paved stone circle with some sort of huge metal ball in the center mutating into a pair of bird wings. (maybe?) I think that marks the center of campus, but I'm not really sure. There's an important building (likely the ministry of propaganda) that lies a few hundred feet beyond it. One day when I was getting close to the ball and wings I saw a couple cows grazing in the nearby grass (which is about knee to waist high at times). Those, no doubt, belong to the agricultural department.

A quarter of a mile past that is this neat open air stone building that serves as a cover for the path for about twenty feet. The floor of the building raises up a foot off the path and provides a smooth (read dangerous) surface to jog on. The building doesn't have any walls, only columns that hold the roof up. The roof itself is triangular and made of plaster and stone. On one of the columns is a poster of Santa Claus. I suspect that its a wanted poster, but I can't read Chinese. (likely Santa failed to pay the tax for wearing red last year.) This doesn't seem to have deflated Santa's spirits as he is still smiling and waving merely in the picture.

I want to get up early enough one morning to sit on one of the squat stone benches inside it and watch the sun come up.

Further down the path, probably another quarter of a mile, there is another paved stone circle. This is one of the cooler monuments on campus so far. One side of the circle contains seven stone pillars that rise along the circle's edge. They go up seven feet or so, and are about a foot thick. Carved into them are images of dragons, demons, birds, and other things I can't identify, all done in the Chinese style. On the other side of the circle is a large square monument with a half sphere mounted on top. held in/over the sphere is what I'm guessing is a depiction of an old school Chinese coin that is bigger than my torso. The whole thing is covered in Chinese characters, some still visible, others worn down to obscurity.

The last thing on the trail is the golf college, which, in China, is a monument unto itself. Apparently, its one of the few in the entire province, not to mention the country as a whole. For now, the college is basically a driving range with a few holes that the students can practice on, but I'm told they will be expanding it in the future.

The golf college is usually the place where I stop, turn around, and walk back to my apartment. Today was the first day that I ran all the way there. It hasn't been easy. Some mornings the smog is thick enough that you can barely see across the lake. The lake isn't really that wide either.


I'd like to continue to ramble about all the things that have gone on so far, but I'm getting a little antsy about my lesson plans. I'll go get those done, and then maybe I'll get on again and do another post. Maybe I'll do one tomorrow. Who knows.

That's all for now.

Signing off.


I'm back. In red though.

Hey everybody. I thought I'd drop by to say hello. Things are going very well here in China, and I seem to have access to blogger for now. I've been itching to write up a post on some of my experiences to date, but alas, such desires must wait.

The Chinese have a much different idea of forewarning than we do in the western world (something which our Chinese boss has joked with us about). I begin teaching classes tomorrow. I received my teaching materials on Tuesday. I've been going a little crazy over the last few days trying to determine both long and short term lesson plans. The short term is of obvious necessity, but it would be nice for the students to understand the overall objectives of the course.

Have I ever mentioned that I've never taught formally?

The next couple of days should be interesting. Wish me luck.