Back in February I was knocking about southern China with my friends Henry and Dan. We had gone to three cities and the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was our last full day in the south, before we flew home out of the city of Kunming.
This last bash coincided with Chinese new years, so we'd decided to go to a few different places in the city during the day. We hit up an English style pub, a park, and a huge youth hostel/pub situated in the middle of the city. Lots of neat cultural things go on during new years eve, and we wanted to try and experience some of them.
The park was a complete blowout, but we met a traveling Englishman there and he joined our group for part of the night.
Next we went to this pub. The pub was small but well furnished in blues and browns. Comfortable seating was to be had inside and out. We staked out a table on the street and drank a few beers with our new friend and some Germans. Down near the door was a sign that read in both English and Chinese: Free dumplings between 6:00 and 9:00.
We watched the sun go down.
"What do you think they're doing there?" Henry said, pointing into the pub. It was getting near six o'clock and we were keeping our eyes peeled for the free dumplings.
"I think those are the free dumplings," said Dan.
Sure enough, seated around an inside table, a group of expats were watching the Chinese pub owner as he instructed them in proper dumpling stuffing and sealing technique. Not only were the dumplings free, but we got to make them. We finished our beers by the time the first round of dumplings came. After we put them away, we decided to go in and lend a hand.
The art of dumpling making is very simple. There are two primary materials: a circular piece of thin dough, and some sort of stuffing, in this case a pork mix and a vegetarian mix. You take just the right pinch of mix -- too little and there's nothing to eat, too much and the dumpling bursts while its cooking -- and pack it into the dough. Wet the edge of the dough with some water and press it together into a crescent shape. Presto. You've made a dumpling.
There are, of course, levels to any art. A group of Chinese people joined us and showed us how to make stylish dumplings, with different patterns along the edges of the dumplings. I invented my own technique and showed it off to the watching Chinese. They shook their heads. Nobody in this country appreciates innovation.
We made dumplings for a while and ate them, and chatted with Chinese and expats. Eventually it was time to move on. The pub we were in was at the edge of the city, and we wanted to be near the center for what was coming next. The fireworks. We went out into the street and started wandering around, looking for a taxi. When we found one we gave the driver the Chinese address for our destination: The Hump youth hostel.
The Hump is situated at the top of a five story building near the center of Kunming. Not only did the hostel serve food and drink, but it had an awesome balcony where we could sit out under the stars and wait for midnight to come around. English, Americans, Australians, and Germans mingled on the roof, waiting for the light show.
I can understand why fireworks are illegal in China now. When midnight rolled around, you'd have thought you were in the middle of a war zone. Any body who can afford them buys up fireworks and shoots them off right in the middle of the city, in and amongst the buildings. We're talking about big fireworks here, the giant multicolored explosions in the sky. Air bursts of green, silver, and gold materialized around the sides of sky scrappers. In a nearby apartment building two groups of people were having a roman candle war. Instead of shooting the roman candles up in the air, two adjacent apartments were spraying them back and forth at each other. Down below people lit off smaller fireworks, especially, what Henry called bangers.
The first time Henry mentioned the word banger, Dan and I gave him looks. Bangers are a Britishism. They're firecrackers for you Americans who are reading.
While the fireworks in the sky were interesting, and pretty, the evolving banger war down below was more so. A group of police officers were camped out at the entrance tunnel to an underground karaoke bar, and they had loads of bangers. Any time people walked through the entrance, the cops would start throwing bangers at them. At some point the stopped throwing them at passers by and started lobbing them at each other.
"Awww, man." This was Henry. "I wonder if they'd give us some bangers."
By this point, Dan was fairly drunk, so he was up for anything. I had no excuse for the ensuing adventure. I said : "We could find out."
Going downstairs and out onto the street, we crept close to where the cops were still pitching firecrackers at each other and at passers by. We watched them for a while before we approached. One of the police officers spotted us right off, and tossed a banger our way. Henry and I scattered, while Dan took a few seconds to process that he was about to explode.
We wandered around amongst the cops dodging bangers they threw at us, both sides laughing at the mayhem. The cops also would toss a banger at any girl who walked through, getting a good shriek and dash out of them. Henry eventually approached one of the cops and asked him for some bangers. I can't imagine why we thought they would arm their easy targets. They turned us down and we wandered off into the night, our ears still ringing.
"We've got to be able to buy some around here," Henry said. "We can't just let them toss off at us like that. Western honor is at stake." So resolved, we started looking around.
Leave it to the Muslims to arm the Lao Wai. If you need something in this country, go find a Muslim street vendor. They're the most friendly, and the most useful. We found a group only two hundred feet away and bought six packs of bangers off them along with a couple of lighters. So armed we turned back towards the police.
"We'll just toss one near them first and see what they do," Henry said. "If that goes well...." He didn't need to finish.
We tossed one down near the entrance of the tunnel, ready to run if the need arose. It didn't even explode before the cops returned fire.
So the banger war had begun. The cops retreated into the entrance of the tunnel and pitched out bangers any time they spotted us. We threw them in. Henry and I served as a distraction while slightly drunken Dan snuck up towards the entrance of the tunnel and hid just outside its lip. He lit a banger and tossed it inside without looking.
Just past the entrance of the tunnel there was a podium and a couch. The podium had a large bundle of balloons tied to it. Dan's first banger missed the balloons and landed on the couch. After it exploded, a few of the cops walked up to it, probably worried that it might have been damaged. The soon went back to throwing bangers at us.
Dan lit another one and tossed it in blind. By this point I was standing next to him so I didn't see what happened around the corner.
All I saw was a massive explosion. Fire came belching out of the mouth of the tunnel.
"Oh crap," I said. Dan was laughing hysterically. I got ready to grab him. "Dan, we might need to get out of here"
I glanced around the corner. In the middle of the tunnel stood one singed police officer, some of his hair still smoking. The look on his face was one that nearly set me on the floor laughing, had I not been half worried about going to red Chinese prison. Fortunately, his buddies also thought whatever had happened was hilarious, and they were walking up to him, brushing him off and making sure he was okay.
I pulled Dan along until we got back near Henry.
"What the heck happened?" I asked.
"I think Dan hit one of those balloons," Henry said. Dan was still laughing. Little did we know that the Chinese still fill their balloons with hydrogen. We waved a sheepish goodbye to the police officers and were off into the darkness before the smoke cleared.
There were, of course, other adventures that we had during those two weeks. I'll tell you about them sometime. Meanwhile, life goes on. I've read yet another book: George Martin's A Feast For Crows. I haven't decided what I'll read next, probably Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. I've finally settled in as far as work goes, and I've carved out just enough spare time to do a little writing and a good deal of reading, so I'm content.
My parents are showing up sometime in the next couple of weeks, though I'm not sure when. Should be a good time while they're here.
I'll catch you later.
Hello again. Your favorite wayward scribbler has finally put his blog writing hat back on for the new year.
What, you might ask, has kept me away?
I'm glad you asked.
There are those moments in time that prove to be pivotal to the future, things that can't help themselves but shape what lies ahead; moments like eating mystery food from a random street vendor; moments like stumbling into a bathroom on a half naked friend or relative; tiny moments like that half second when you're trying to decide between the nachos supreme or the steak fajitas at a Mexican joint.
Moments like telling your superiors that you happen to have a hobby like writing.
It was early in the teaching term of last year. I was still getting my footing as far as teaching oral English went. I was going slightly crazy. As is often the case, when I do start something, I am a bit of perfectionist. I didn't just want to teach oral English, I wanted to transform students from bumbling half decipherable cretins to neigh superhuman masters of the English language. These expectation were obviously too high. I kept saying to myself,
"I don't have the wildest idea what a "real" oral English teacher (that old thought still cracks me up) would be covering in classes like mine. I don't have any real qualifications for teaching these blasted classes. How am I going to survive this semester, not to mention getting through the next one?"
It didn't help very much that I was also getting bombarded with a dash of culture shock here and a sprinkle of missing family and friends there. I look back on those first three or four weeks as a period of half insanity, brought on by the overwhelming number of things I had to learn in a very short period of time. If China has taught me anything, one is a new respect for all those poor people who had to teach me in high school and college.
There I was, with my delusionally high expectations, and the science section of my brain couldn't help itself but try to solve the problem.
There was, of course, the option of sitting in the library and pouring over the stacks of English as a second language books. Basically trying to give myself a Masters education with books written in the 1950s. But at that point I was really beginning to hate oral English. So my brain grabbed onto something else. "What about writing?" my brain asked.
"Of course!" I thought. "I know something about writing! Its not exactly an avalanche of knowledge, but its certainly more than I know about teaching oral English." I also knew that some of my friends were teaching basic writing courses. "There," my brain told itself, "lies my salvation." So, I set about my new task: worming my way into teaching some basic writing courses. I asked around the university about writing and dropped a few hints that I have some writing experience. Got my name out there. It was about half way through the semester when I got my first nibble.
Half way through the semester marks the end of the first round of Oral English classes and the beginning of the first golden age of my life in China (all my lesson planning was done, since the next round of classes were repeats). When classes end, the students offer up reviews of the teachers. Getting a bad review isn't that big of a deal. You have to work at it to get fired around here, but good reviews can open up doors around the university. In my case, I should have felt the handle of the door to check for fire. Or listened in case there were any gibbering monsters hiding on the other side.
I got a good review, of course. My students liked me, partially because I was entertaining, but also because I worked hard to make the class valuable, yet not overbearing. This brought me to the attention of the Dean of the English department, the man who is in charge of assigning teachers to the basic writing course.
We met a few times and chatted. I mentioned my interest in teaching writing classes, and he sized me up. He mentioned that there might be some business writing classes that would open up next year, and that if I was interested, he could give those classes to me. This didn't set off any of those nifty little warning bells in my head. Warning bells that might have said things like "Derek, business writing is a subject taught at the upper levels of university," or "Derek, you don't know anything about business writing," or "Derek, run away now, while you still have a chance." All my warning bells were still a bit discombobulated. I smiled and nodded at the nice Dean of the English department.
Time passed. I became exceptionally lazy. With my lesson plans all finished I worked something like fourteen hours a week. The rest of my time was spend doing things like sitting on my couch, watching movies, reading books, and playing video games. I did do a few things that were more productive here and there. I did some writing. But mostly I vegged out.
When the semester was winding down I received my schedule for the next year. Business Writing + two oral English classes, my schedule said. No biggie I thought. I'll just take the book for the class and study up over the break. I can get some other stuff from the library and it'll be all good.
Then, I got the first hint that something bad was coming down the pipe.
A few days after I got my schedule the Dean of the English department, Mr. Zhao, gave me a call and told me he'd like to talk to me over lunch. "S'okay, no problamo," I told him.
When I sat down at the table, there was another man there that I'd never seen before, nor have I since. I want to say his English name was Henry. Large guy, thick set with a bull haircut and bifocals. I was informed that he was in charge of a new group of students I'd be teaching, a group of graduate chemistry students.
Huh, that's funny, my half asleep warning bells slurred.
"Oh yeah? What am I going to teach them?"
They looked at each other.
"We're not really sure."
Huh, that's funny.
What I dragged out of them over the next half hour is that they wanted me to teach the students "science writing" so they could publish some articles in a science journal, or write some reviews for a magazine. Science writing concerning chemistry. Graduate level chemistry.
I asked them how much English these students would know.
"We're not really sure."
"What previous writing experience do they have?"
They weren't really sure.
I got that answer a lot.
Basically what they told me, was that I should walk into class the first day, and ask the students all the questions that I was asking them right now. And then plan a course based on that designed to improve my student's writing skills. Basically, they wanted me to make a little magic.
My warning bells had once again fallen asleep. Long periods of inactivity seem to do that to the little guys.
"Sure," I said.
The next day I was walking around campus, getting food, enjoying the sunshine, and thinking about how I'd teach this goofy science writing course. I decided while I was out I'd head over to the English department and see if I could get the book for my Business English class.
I got over there, and found my co-teacher. I asked her about the book.
"Oh, we don't have that book yet."
"Oh yeah? When do you think it will get in?" I was assuming they were ordering more to stock up for the next semester. I wasn't really that worried. I figured they surely would have one laying around for little old me, the teacher.
"I'm not sure." She got on her phone for a half a minute. "I'll call you when we get it," she said, smiling.
"You don't have just one? That I could have?"
"Oh, no," she said. She was still smiling, but she seemed a bit puzzled.
Huh, thats funny.
I didn't worry about it. I probably should have, but I didn't I had found a business writing book in the library that I was glancing through. I figured, I'll take care of all this when I get back from vacation.
Vacation came and went. It was awesome by the way. I'll tell you about it sometime.
Eventually I got back. I'd planned out what I wanted to do for my science kids. Now I just needed to get that business writing book so I could sit down and figure out what was going on with that. I went and visited my co-teacher again. I like to do things face to face. I found her in the English department.
"You get the book in yet?"
The rest of the world needs to make sure the Chinese never get the ability to spontaneously vanish, because if they ever do, we'll never get an answer out of any of them again. They hate to be the bearers of bad news. So much so they'd rather just not tell you anything. Even if that makes things worse.
"Oh, the book. It won't be in until a few days before the class starts. Maybe that Friday or Saturday." She never would have told me that if I hadn't asked again. And that was not even the truth.
I went away beginning to feel a bit anxious. Its a little unnerving to be told you need to teach a class, a real university level class, but not be told what subject matter you'll be covering. Time passed. I didn't do much in the way of lesson planning. It was sorta hard, under the circumstances.
I went by the office again, about a week before classes, to check on the book.
"Oh, there won't be one."
"What?" The lady almost met angry Derek. It probably wasn't her fault, so I let it go.
"Wait, there won't be a book for the class? How am I supposed to teach a class if I don't know what you want me to teach them?"
"Maybe I have misunderstood. Hold there please." She marched away. She came back about twenty minutes later.
"Oh, the dean of the foreign language school is still in the process of choosing a book. The book will arrive sometime two weeks from now." She obviously felt really bad. "Will you be okay to teach the first week?"
I gave her my patented smile.
"Yes, I'll be fine."
You see, by now my brain was back on full alert, and I'd been half expecting this.
I waited until the first day of school came around. It was a Monday, and thankfully I have those days off. I went in and grabbed every technical and business English writing book I could get my hands on and flew back out the door. The next day rolled around and I did an introduction day for my Tuesday business writing students, which translates into tell the class about myself and keep them laughing till the bell rings. The funniest moment of the class was when I told them I didn't have the book yet, and one of the students held up a copy. I borrowed it from him. It turned out to be a complete pile of trash. It covers the formatting guidelines (and does so very poorly) of most of the basic business documents. The sort of things you can find using google. It doesn't do much in the way of suggesting how to write them.
Ever since then I've been studying or writing lesson plans. I write my science class's lesson plans, my business English lesson plans. I sometimes have a few spare moments where I sit on my couch and try not to think too hard. When I lay down at night to go to sleep I have to tell my brain to shut its cake hole. Information keeps swirling around in there from earlier in the day.
And all this is completely normal modus operandi for China. At least as far as I can tell. I could give enough examples to fill a book at this point. Maybe I will someday.
Things I've learned from this experience:
Lesson number one: Don't teach anything besides oral English. (Which is super crazy easy to teach once you get the hang of it.)
Lesson number two: Never trust Chinese bureaucracies to do things that make sense.
Lesson number three: Make sure to lessen any impressions of competence that you give. The more competent you seem, the more outrageous things your bosses will ask you to do.
Its not really stressed me out that much. I figure the school will reap the rewards of its own decisions. I'll meanwhile do my best by myself and my students.
But anyway. Now you know where I've been. I hope this excuse will suffice, faithful readers. Its a pretty good one, I think. I hope you'll think so too, and forgive my lack of posting.
As I've always said, life goes on. I'm chugging along. I should have all my lesson plans done for my science writers and my business writers in the next three weeks. At least if I keep on task. I can then evaluate their overall merits, and readjust them to be even better. I'm not quiet as busy as I've made myself out to be. I've read several books since the last time I posted, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, Duma Key by Stephen King, and Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card. I think there was another one in there, but I can't latch onto it in mah brain. Writing hasn't completely ground to a halt either, but it's come close. I've stopped work on el Novel, but I managed to write a short story and this blog post. I'm going to try to write another short story in the next week or two. When lesson plans end, novel will once more begin.
Oh, and I'll be coming home this summer, I've decided. I'll get back into the States on June the 26th at around one in the morning. I hope I'll get a chance to run into old friends. Make an excuse to come see me if I can't come see you, won't you?
Catch ya later.
- ▼ 2011 (10)