See Matt. See Matt blog. Blog, Matt, blog.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Xin Nian Kuai Le

Happy New Year! Or, in Chinese: Xin Nian Kuai Le!

We all remember how to say Merry Christmas, right? "Sheng dan," meaning Christmas, and "kuai le," meaning happy or merry. It's easy to throw "kuai le" around and make a couple of useful phrases, like, for example, happy birthday (sheng ri kuai le).

"Xin" is literally "new," while "nian" is literally "year." So "xin nian kuai le" is ... that's right, happy new year. You can also say "yuan dan kuai le," which is an alternate way to say happy new year that means something slightly different (what the difference is, I do not know).

I spent last night at the rock-climbing bar, ringing in the New Year with Nicki, Steve, Kevin De Palma (KDP, KDP15, etc.), Shang, and Lynn. There was drinking, jenga, that Chinese drinking game where you bluff the number of dice on the table (they play it in Pirates of the Caribbean 2), and (of course) rock climbing.

It was a great night, the beer was cheap, and buying a single round of vodka shots toward the end resulted in a happy manager giving us a free round of beers and a free seventh shot. As were prepared to go, there was a drunken round of darts, a bicycle or quadracycle that sat three people, and two Chinese girls that kept asking for pictures.

We made our way to a taxi, and while I don't much remember the ride back (that seventh vodka shot), the last picture in my camera shows Nicki and Shang riding one of the big stone lions in front of the school. Any night that ends with riding lions is a good night.

So, new years resolutions? Ah, I've got a ton. Rather than go through all the ways I want to change my life, I'll just list three simple big ones:

1. Exercise more. I've lost some weight here, but not enough, and the key to good health is more exercise.

2. Study Chinese. I've made some great strides in understanding Mandarin, but there's still a long way to go. Na li, na li.

3. Be a better teacher. I've got to put in more time and energy into my teaching in the future, so that I'm better organized and better prepared, and so that my students learn more and learn more easily.

So, welcome, 2007: this is the first year where I really have no idea what to expect. That is very exciting, and I think great things await.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

And yet Blogger still works?

I got no tubes!

I am , of course, referring to the internet; I've been without internet access for a couple of days now, and I've been using the metaphor of inept Senator Ted Stevens to describe my plight to, well, myself.

Basically, two underwater earthquakes off the coast of Taiwan on Tuesday severed some really important cables that keep North American internets connected to Asian internets. My usual sources of news are all unreachable now, because the data just can't get to China fast enough before timing out. Interestingly, Google and its associated programs (Gmail, Blogger, etc.) seem to be unaffected; most likely this is due to Google working closely with the Chinese government (that's right) and some of Google's stuff undoubtedly being hosted (cheaply) in China. So with a lot of the links on Google News connecting to hosts in the US, a bulk of my news has been incomplete two-sentence headlines that link to unreachable articles.

So Gerald Ford has been eaten by wolves as the senseless age of 93? And Saddam Hussein had his date with the hangman's noose? Along with James Brown, that should complete the trifecta!

It's Saturday afternoon, but I just finished classes. The News Years holiday was supposed to be just one day off, News Years Day (that is, January first ... this is not the fabled Chinese New Year, not yet at least). But some jackass with a lot of power decided he wanted a five-day weekend, so the order was handed down from on high: we'll have Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday off, but we have to make up our Tuesday and Wednesday classes on Saturday and Sunday.


I've come to expect some insane shit here, but this is just beyond asinine. For most people, it just shuffles around the same three days off, while adding all sorts of trouble for those that actually do things on the weekend. Many of my students, for example, use their free weekends to tutor high/middle/elementary school students; so now they're income for the week is screwed because the weekend was effectively canceled.

A few deep, calming breaths; let's move on.

I've finished writing my exams, and I've been reviewing with my classes for the past week or so, so that they'll know what to expect come January. Even after all this time, I still can't understand some of my classes. Take today for example: two literature classes, a morning class (at eight) and a mid-morning class (at ten). My eight o'clock class is, consistently, fantastic. They always come prepared, they engage in the class, they laugh and talk and actually do something in class.

But then I'll show up to the ten o'clock class, same topic, same preparation on my part, and I will be faced with absolute silence and apathy. It's not a difference of ability; if anything, my ten o'clock class seems to have a better vocabulary and can express themselves easier (if they ever want to). They just choose to not do a damn thing in my class, they just leave me hanging for ten minutes at a time as a bunch of expressionless faces pretend to feverishly hunt for the right answer in the book.

I don't hate them, I don't even dislike them; they're a good bunch of kids, my ten o'clock, and I know they have all just transfered in to this school (despite being juniors), so they are still unfamiliar with a lot of things here. But dammit, it's been a whole term, and there is no excuse for them to be so tacit and shy. Their utter lack of effort seems to only make a hard course (literature in a foreign language) all the more difficult and boring.

So, New Years is ... well, tomorrow. Guess I should do something to celebrate. Nicki and I have talked all term about going to a bar in Xia Shan that has a rock-climbing wall; maybe we'll go there and celebrate the New Year with some of the other foreigners. I can't imagine a place like that staying open for more than ten minutes in the states before getting sued into oblivion, but then, having the (shall we say) more lax regulations of China does have its benefits.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Maple Syrup Is Only Good on Certain Things

On Christmas Eve, I was kind of slobbing it up around the apartment, in a weird Christmas funk, but suddenly my day brightened when I got a call from the Foreign Affairs office: they had a package for me. Now, would this mark the arrival of The October Package, Beowulf I've heard him called, whose mythic two-month journey over the sea via slow boat is only whispered of in story in song within the great mead-halls of our fathers? Or would this be the express mid-December package that promised to deliver all sorts of "Do Not Open 'Till Xmas" goodies?

Well, it turned out to be the Christmas one. I laid the presents out in front of the tree until Christmas morning, honoring (with some comments on my tremendous willpower) the whole Christmas morning tradition; and my family is so great and lame that they actually had me open them in front of the Skype webcam chat we had going Christmas morning. Yeah, it felt like an astronaut opening presents "live via satellite," but it was still pretty cool. I got an Patrick's ld GameCube, with Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime, and as soon as I can, I'm getting The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess over here. I also got some nice shirts, and a few DS games (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney). Not a bad haul for being half way around the world!

So when Christmas day rolled around, in what appears to be tradition for any kind of holiday here, the Western teachers, demanding Western food, made our way to the Crown Plaza hotel for their five-star Western buffet. They had turkey (with some really lousy chestnut stuffing) and some Christmas ham and desserts and a bunch of other seasonal things, but the cost was raised to a sticker-shocking 158 yuan. Damn. That's a ton of money for what is really hit-or-miss food and mediocre dessert. If it weren't for the free beer and coffee, I don't think I'd return.

Just before we went to dinner, I was notified that I had another package - yes, the Beowulf whale-road parcel - ready to be picked up at the local post office. It was too late to grab it after the meal, so I went today after my classes. There was a big to-do about me actually being who I claim to be, and it took four postal workers scrutinizing and name-checking to determine that I am indeed Matthew. The problem? When *they* received the package, *they* notified the school (via a slip that *they* wrote) that there was a package for "Mathew." So when this Matthew character shows up, flaunting that extra t, well, he's clearly trying to steal something, matching signature and passport be damned!

Acquiescence came at last, and I was given my big, heavy package. It was covered in a thin black plastic bag, and upon peeling it away I saw a white package stained all over with thick ugly rotten brown. And a sweet smell ... Uh-oh. Maple syrup. My pancake lust had finally gotten the best of me.

So it was a long, slow walk from the post office to the nearest bus stop, and once off the bus, it was a ponderous walk up to my apartment, until I finally opened the box and found that everything - and I mean everything - was soaked with maple syrup. Reese's, birthday cards, newspapers, mail, cans of tuna fish, you name it. A lot was salvageable; the cans of tuna only needed a quick rinse, bags of mac and cheese were rinsed and rebagged, my new Dogfish Head t-shirt I let soak in the wash for a few hours and I think it'll be fine. But let this be a warning to you all: maple syrup isn't as innocent as it appears.

All the trees around here are being painted with a thick matte white, from the ground to about three feet up, to protect them from insects or disease or something; Nicki says it looks like they're all wearing socks. So I'll leave you with a picture of that.

Friday, December 22, 2006

My Christmas Tree

As Patch said, it looks like it's the most lonely Christmas tree in China ...

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Working for that Cotton Candy

I was shopping for Christmas gifts a week or so ago, and I saw this guy running his own cotton candy "stand." Gotta give it to him, he earns that two yuan a pop.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Breakfast and Literalism

I miss breakfast. Immensely. I'm having impure thoughts about a large stack of pancakes, some sausage and/or bacon, and a big cup of good coffee. And perhaps some ... dare I say it? ... milk.

Thinking about it only makes it more torturous, but I can't stop.

In other news, literalism is quite "in" here in China. Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter," apparently really hunted crocodiles. Despite five news articles to the contrary and four weeks of classes where "wildlife," "conservationist," and "preservation" were important, oft-defined vocabulary terms, I am a liar and Steve Irwin preyed on innocent crocodiles, murdering them in cold blood.

That is all.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Old Man Christmas

Christmas in Chinese is "sheng dan jie." Sheng dan meaning Christmas, jie meaning festival.

Merry Christmas, then, is "sheng dan kaui le." Christmas + kuai le, a phrase that means happy for joyful.

And Santa Claus is "sheng dan lao ren." Christmas + lao ren, literally "old man," and so (with a little naturalization and reorganization for English), Santa Claus is "Old Man Christmas." A lot like the British Father Christmas, when you think about it.

"The holidays" in China are a disorienting time. None of the traditional cues exist here; it's a bright and sunny sixty-six degrees outside as I write this, there's no Christmas music or ornaments assaulting my senses in the shops, and I don't watch TV (although I should, it'd help with my Chinese), so the idea of "ChristmasBUYBUYBUY" isn't being hammered into my head. So it was kind of a shock when I realized that it's already the middle of December, that Christmas will in fact be here soon, and that it's going to be an unusual and unavoidably lonely Christmas in China, without the family and friends that I've shared this time of year with in the past.

They say Christmas is when most foreigners crack; if I can make it to New Years, I think I'll be OK.

I taught some classes the full "Twas the Night Before Christmas" poem this past week, and it went over well. Interestingly, my freshmen, thirsty for culture and vocabulary, really ate it up (I think my drawings (with color!) of Santa Claus, reindeer, stockings over the fireplace and wreaths on the board helped). My juniors, who are in my literature class, were as disaffected as normal; I might as well have been reading stereo instructions. I explained that this poem helped define the American image of Santa Claus: flying reindeer, red-nosed and red-cheeked and red-coated (although red isn't mentioned anywhere in the poem) and bowlful-of-jelly-shaking, and all that jazz. And then I told them that, when you think about it, this poem's image of Santa Claus is the one that has become world-famous; this poem is the reason the people working at the supermarket wear pointy red hats in December.

I thought that was pretty amazing, how this American poem from two hundred years ago has come all the way to China and effected their daily lives, if only in such a small way. I think some students were with me, shaking their heads in awe of the impossibility of it all; others just wanted me to draw more funny pictures on fat red men on the board.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sometimes you get defensive

I was talking with a student the other day, and we found ourselves discussing and comparing the writing styles of America (and, thus, the West) versus the writing styles of China (and, perhaps less thusly, the East). This is a matter that's oh-so-dear to my pedantic littler heart, what with part of my job being to teach students how to research and organize a thesis (not to mention write, quote, and cite a paper). I always try to give the ego ten bucks for a quick trip to the corner store when these talks begin, because you'd be surprised how innocent little conversations like this can turn on you, when you suddenly find yourself rabidly defending something you don't really care about simply because it's How Things are Done at Home. One of the things I didn't like about Hessler's "River Town" (although I would still recommend his book to any teacher or traveler) was how often he couldn't just smile and nod, how often her took things, well, personally. But today even my eunuch-like sense of pride started to get inflamed, and what annoys me is I still don't understand why.

The Chinese style, my quasi-compatriot opined, is all about "the big picture." A Chinese essay about the necessity for a new stop sign might begin on the cosmic level, detailing how important the cessation of inertia is galactically. Somewhere around page three, I guess, they'd get down to the here-and-now and actually mention the stop sign. But only in passing.

And so I found myself butting heads against this idea with arguments for the elegant simplicity of an essay with a focused topic, one that cuts the grand macroscopic litany and just gets to the goddamn point. I tried to explain how an audience (or, for you fine folks at home, a reader) in the West would think such protracted blustering reveals that the writer simply doesn't know anything; my student was shocked how anyone could so artlessly present their ideas without grand, sweeping metaphors that all come together in the end. "And so you see, the planets have aligned, and Behold! A new stopsign is vital to the success of the nation and the spirit of the people!"

For some reason, this aggravated me. Then we began to discuss American education, and the idea in China that American's can't do math. And again, this made me defensive, and I can't explain why, because a) I know it's true and b) me no do math good. And I found myself spouting off some nonsense, "Oh, well, you see, in America, we focus on, well, um, computers," my mind a few steps behind me, baffled at why I was allowing this crap to get at me, reeling as to why I would vigorously defend this point that I didn't care about.


What bothers me the most is that there's no neat, simple, bloggical (read: trite) answer. I still don't know why it got to me.

On the bright side, I just finished sharing with some students a few Christmas songs (it sure is nice to hear Lennon's Happy X-Mas (War is Over) followed by Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), an excerpt from Dickens's A Christmas Carol (it's odd how few people have actually read this), and showed them Disney's Mickey's Christmas Carol, a true classic. I'm going to feel old saying (writing) this for the first time and actually meaning it, but man, they really just don't make them like this anymore. It was great to share some real Christmas stuff with my students (the commercialization of the whole thing has turned it into a Valentine's Day Part II kind of holiday here), and on my way home, I bought a plastic twelve-inch mini Christmas tree.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

I can't do math and speak Chinese at the same time, dammit!

Walking and shopping today to pick up some gifts and the remaining bits and pieces for my external hard drive (like, you know, the hard drive), I ran into a bunch of street vendors selling some maps and language posters. Just some simple, everyday pictures with the Chinese name and character written underneath. They seemed like good things to throw up on my wall, and I know of others that have done the same to help build vocabulary and all that, so I waded through a large pile of 'em to grab three that I wanted. I asked the guy selling 'em, how much for one? He said five yuan. OK, how about ten yuan for three? Oh no, no, fifteen. How about ten? And so on, for a bit, until I wanted to sweeten the deal with a large map of China (in Chinese, of course), which was twenty yuan. So in the confusion of bargaining for a good price on the small posters, trying to bargain for the map, speaking the right thing and making sure I was doing all the language stuff correctly, I walked away happily with three posters and the map for thirty-five yuan. Score! I'm the best bargainer in the world!

... hey wait a minute!

I was half a block away before I realized I hadn't saved any money. Damn you, savvy Chinese street vendors! I can't do simple addition and speak Chinese at the same time! Oh well. Got a few interesting pictures on the walk, tried a new noodle restaurant (still can't top Mohammed's right around the corner from campus), and now I have a nice hefty 250GB external hard drive.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Get a Good Stereo

I was shopping for an external hard drive this afternoon (with Steve's help, both in technical knowledge and communication, although I was quite proud that I was able to understand a majority of the conversations, if only at a painfully slow pace), and I saw a nice 2.1 (read: front speakers and sub woofer) set of speakers that I was eying when I bought my router a few months ago. It's a sleek NEC branded (whether or not it's actually NEC will forever be a mystery) set, some solid and loud front speakers and a nice hefty sub that outputs strong, heavy bass. Back then, with my even more crippled Chinese, I was able to bargain the price down to about 300 yuan, from an initial 350. Well, today, I was quite proud of myself when I walked in and, asking for the price in Chinese, was quoted by a quite shocked clerk a price of 250. And then I was able to bargain it down to 200! So I got these really nice, sharp, loud speakers for about $25 US.

And let me tell you ... you really need to listen to your favorite music with a decent set of speakers. Putting iTunes on random just reveals a layer of vibrancy and richness you don't get out of tiny, tinny speakers. Tom Waits went from sounding gravely to sounding like a goddamn quarry. Subtle bass lines that are just lost through headphones or on crappy stereo speakers sound fantastic.

I felt great getting these speakers so cheaply, and for bargaining and understanding a decent amount from the vendors. But I also had some great classes today, and not coincidentally, they were about music. My freshmen read about, wrote about, talked about, and finally listened to some music, and it was great. It's so strange to hear The Velvet Underground being piped into a classroom in the middle of China, and the weird combination of events that brought it here. And it was really interesting to see the faces of listeners that love the music of Sweet Jane, but just have no idea what to make of the rushed, idiosyncratic vocals.

We read a long, vocabulary-packed history of a popular Taiwanese pop group, S.H.E., and I gave them the lyrics to a Beatles classic "In My Life" as I explained the concept of "bittersweet." And then we had the incomprehensible, angelic Hawaiian and joyful ukulele of good 'ol Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. It was great to introduce my students to some new music. They loved the Beatles, I think seeing the lyrics in front of them really helped, and though no one could understand Iz's words, the amazing music in Panini Pua Kea had them dancing and smiling and just loving it. And asking them to put those thoughts and feelings into words, well ... it was a good day of teaching.

Yeah, so, S.H.E. Here's one of their more popular songs, "Superstar." Their similarities to Western pop (and music videos) are so scary, it's almost like they've got it down to a FORMULA or something!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

I am such a teacher.

Today I gave my first pop quiz. The mortal terror on the faces of the intended victims slaked some vicious and primal thirst that I didn't even know existed until I drank deeply from the chalice of fear.

Not quite.

Teaching poetry and classic English literature like Shakespeare or Wordsworth is really difficult when you're teaching it to people who are learning English as a second language. It's hard enough to get students to read with interest literature in their native language (as some of my droll literature classes at Villanova can attest); it's a whole other set of problems when you add in the myriad barriers presented by literature to non-native readers. And the skills necessary to speak another language have no correlation to understanding or enjoying an artistic work in that language. That is to say: just because you can read it doesn't mean you can understand it.

It's amazing just how much is taken for granted in language and literature. Anyone that speaks English shares a hugely similar background in terms of history, education, and religion. Even if you were a home-schooled atheistic nomad, simply speaking English has inured you to the pillars and traditions of The West. You know, Greece and Rome, Latin and Greek, Christianity, European history, Renaissance and Enlightenment and pointless, bloody fighting over religion. So how do you explain all of the allusions to Hellenistic culture and history and society in Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn? How can you expect them to enjoy Shakespeare or Wilde when the concept of a pun doesn't exist in Chinese? The whole point of "The Importance of Being Earnest" is lost, and explaining it doesn't make it funny, it just reinforces the idea of English literature as this obtuse and difficult subject that, in the end, isn't going to help anyone when they get a job teaching conversational English.

So my first quiz wasn't about interpreting a deep piece of poetry or explaining Hamlet's existential dilemma. It was five simple, plot-based questions about Robinson Crusoe. We spent all of last class reading it, discussing it, and making sure every little nook and cranny of the short excerpt was understood. And I told the class ("hint hint") be ready to discuss (wink wink) this story next class. That is your homework (ahem wink): be (wink wink) prepared (wink wink). So with as much warning as I could possibly give for a supposed "pop quiz," I still met with stifled complaints. Some tried to explain that they weren't here the last two classes, and all I could say was the obvious: making up classwork is your responsibility, you've made no effort to contact me for information about the missed classes, and the course doesn't stop when you're not here, now does it? This is, you know, a UNIVERSITY. Not kindergarten. After taking a look at the quiz, I got a lot of complaints: "this is too difficult" and such. No, it's not; if you came prepared to discuss this story, if your DID your HOMEWORK, this quiz should be no problem.

But what is this?! Foreign teachers are supposed to be our singing, dancing monkeys! They aren't supposed to actually teach us anything! I have no delusions of being the savior of the English language for anyone here, but I am teaching a real literature class, and you can bet your ass that if it were a Chinese literature class, they'd have quizzes and be expected to talk and come prepared, just like any other university class. And this was just a simple quiz about plot points in a story!

So I went over the rules (no talking, no book, no notes), the answers (short, complete sentences; spelling and grammar, while important, will not be held against you), the grading (five short-answer questions worth twenty points each, bonus definitions offering a total of ten bonus points), I read each question aloud so there could be no confusion as to what I was asking, ensured there we no questions and that everyone's name was in the top right-hand corner, and we began. As if to foretell the inevitable, I saw many students cheerfully and promptly put their name on the top left.

And lo did he humbly understand the proverb: the best-laid plans of mice and men do oft go awry.

I guess I should have anticipated just how long it would take them write down the short answers I was looking for; shifting all those mental gears obviously takes time. I should have thought ahead, in case the class wasn't finished in the first forty-five minute period. But the bell rang for our ten-minute break, and no one in the class was finished. So here was a nice big window for the whole class to talk about the quiz, in Chinese of course, me oblivious and powerless to stop them. I warned them: no talking about the quiz, no writing on your papers, no looking in your book during the break. But it was futile. As soon as the bell rang to begin our second period, I heard the incessant tearing of tape on paper, happily, gingerly lifting the incorrect answers off the page and leaving fresh pulpy scar tissue, perfect for jotting down the class's consensual answer.

God dammit.

The quiz wasn't hard, and I had no desire to trick anyone; and the quiz was more preparing them for the questions they'll see on the final than anything. I guess it's just too much to ask for an honest quiz. I wanted to bitterly scream "I'll get you fuckers on the final!" but really, I just want them to read carefully and understand the damn book. I'll make sure to trim the quiz for next week's classes, so it's doable in the first half of class. Live, as they say, and learn.

Pop quizzes, love for an unappreciated subject, bitterness toward thankless students, pettiness clouding the genuine aim of education ... man, I am such a teacher!

Lazy Wednesday

Ugh. Lazy Wednesday is right. This week my seniors have been off in Guangzhou (taking their first timid steps into the crushing Chinese job market), and I spent a classless Wednesday sleeping in and wasting time. Grading some papers (not enough), playing some emulated Majora's Mask (too much), doing laundry and a little cleaning and neglecting the Robinson Crusoe quiz and interviews I'm to prepare for tomorrow's classes. And I still have mountains of papers to grade, finals to write, and classes to prepare. Ugh, indeed.

Even on the other side of the planet, with a whole city to explore and culture to experience and language to practice and learn, I can still be a lazy shut-in bum. Oh well. To borrow one of the (nauseatingly overused) phrases from my student's journals, "tomorrow is another day!"

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zhanjiang Superstar pt. II

The rock stars that are the foreign teachers - well, Steve, Kevin, and myself (along with foreign student Fulihan, and yes that's his Chinese name and no I can't be bothered to look up how you spell his real name) - were all interviewed and pictured in a local newspaper recently, when we attended a local Zhanjiang Beer Festival. They had kabobs of all kinds of meat: venison, ostrich, mutton, you name it. They also had lots and lots of cheap beer.

Delicious ostrich, and our beer festival spread.

Kevin (in blue, on the far right) ran into a group of his students at the festival, and it was a lot of fun practicing my Chinese and helping them practice English. On top of the food and the beer, there were some fireworks and a lot of obnoxious muzak! A fun night indeed.

The caption reads "Foreign friends (lit: foreign friend people) celebrate beer festival." Damn I'm good! Be sure to check out a lot more pictures here.