Search This Blog

Sunday, November 7, 2010

2 firsts: Silk Market and "adult store"

I'm going to a party on Wednesday night that requires we wear a Tang dynasty shirt. I had no idea where to get one, so I headed to the Silk Market. It's one of the biggest tourist sites in Beijing, with 1700 vendors and 60,000 visitors per day on weekends, but I'd never been there because I had heard it was such a tourist trap.

But now I needed silk and had no idea where to find such a traditional outfit, so the Silk Market seemed to fit the bill. It lived up to its reputation for crowds, pushy vendors, and outrageous initial prices (though the prices sound good to people just off the boat). It's known for its knock-off clothing and accessories, but the one thing the Silk Market had very little of was silk. I finally found a place that had what I wanted and the woman asked for the outrageous price of $800. I countered with $100 (which still may have been too much--I don't know) and after a fun negotiation dance, I walked away with it for a little more than $100.

Afterwards, while exploring the area, I saw one of the "adult shops" you see all over Beijing. I had been curious for a while, and decided that today was the day to check it out. It had condoms, lubricants, stimulants, fake breasts (for straight men's enjoyment) and not much else. What was surprising was the attendant: a woman in her 60's wearing what looked like a nurse's uniform from the 50's: white dress and white nurse's hat. I suppose that's to give it a sheen of medical necessity. I actually did feel more comfortable there than if it had been some skank in their 20s, so I guess it worked on me.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Judge and jury

One of my classes this week was on the American legal system --just the spare basics of what happens in a trial. Almost all of the students thought that, as in China, the judge decides who is innocent or guilty. They were fascinated by the idea of a jury - average people making this decision? They aren't experts, so how can they make the right decisions? How are they picked? What if they don't want to do it?

They were all incredulous that the jury decision has to be unanimous -what if one person is an idiot? One student, whose name is "Sunny Bright", said "maybe that's why the crime rate is so high in the US." Another asked, "Doesn't this make the jury susceptible to bribing?"

I explained that this is one of the most basic of rights in England and the US, going back 700 years, but they didn't seem to be impressed. The unanimity part really bothered them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"You must be from New Zealand."

I've know for a while that my accent was "in the middle" somewhere. A lot of native Southerners say that they don't hear an accent (meaning it's standard American), but when I travel in the US outside the South, people say OH YEAH you do have a Southern accent. This is probably familiar to a lot of people who have moved to a different area than they grew up in or whose accent has changed.

I admit to trying to "soften" my accent when I was in college because it just sounded too redneck to me. However, I have never wanted to get rid of it, just to have a more attractive version of it...more genteel. I don't want to have a boring, standard American accent, and I am proud of my Southern heritage.

But the comments I have received here in Beijing are bizarre to me. Many of my students have said that I don't sound American. If I ask them what I sound like, they usually say British, or say I sound like another teacher here--who is from England. This puzzles me, so I've asked them what in particular makes them say that. They usually can't say. A couple of times, students have said something like, "You just don't act like an American."

Well. What does that mean? I think of the old "All in the Family" show, where Archie made the outre comment that all British men act "queer". Is that what they really meant? I tend to discount the students' comments since I don't think they are particularly good at detecting English-language accents anyway.

However, a couple of teachers who are from Australia told me they thought at first I was from Australia or New Zealand. And today, in training, a guy from England upon meeting me said confidently, "You're either from Australia or New Zealand--can't quite place it." When I told him America - North Carolina, he said, "Well, I guess we expect the way we hear Americans sound in movies."

The one thing that I know that stands out about the way I speak is my Pennsylvania long "o". It's kind of "e-yo-oo" sound. I learned about this when I took a diction class in college. (This was the same time I learned there was a difference in pronunciation between "pin" and "pen", and "want" and "won't'.) My professor went to my church and was aware that in elementary school I was taught by nuns from Pennsylvania, so he concluded that's where I must have gotten it. When I hear that sound, it does sound British to me, and I mentioned that to the English guy today, and he said "Maybe that's it."

Any light friends or family could shed on this mystery would be much appreciated.

BTW it will be interesting to hear, when I return to the States, whether people think I speak any differently. When I first started teaching, I was told repeatedly that I speak too fast for students to understand, so I've really worked on slowing down my speech, also on enunciating my words more clearly. I rarely get a complaint anymore, so I guess I'm succeeding.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

National amnesia; students open up

In 2 of the 3 types of classes we have, I am very fortunate to be able to hear students talk about some intimate things on a variety of subjects. It's a real window onto the culture that I think not many people get.

For instance, in a recent Face2Face (just the teacher and 4 students), we read an excerpt from a woman who talks about the idyllic 50s in England, and compares it unfavorably to today. She says they had bigger houses, lived in the country, played outside, had gardens, ate healthier food and ate together as a family--all in contrast to today.

I ask them if they think things are better today in China than they were in the 50's and 60's. I'm very interested to hear what they have to say because to me there is no doubt at all that it's much better today. But I'd heard and seen what I saw as evidence that there was a national amnesia about those days. They are not taught in school that millions of people died from starvation and violence due to the ruinous policies of Chairman Mao, and it certainly isn't covered in the media. I've had conversations with local teachers, who are well-educated, who seemed to be completely ignorant of this time and, what's more, didn't care.

I had this same class several times in the last week, so it was interesting to see the dynamic in each class. The first couple of classes, everyone said things were better back then, but they were quoting from the story, saying that food was healthier, etc. This speaks to the way they are trained in school to tell you what you want to hear rather than give their real opinion.

But don't these people hear stories from their parents and grandparents? Or do people from those generations simply not want to talk about it?

Finally, yesterday in my final F2F on this subject, a teenage girl spoke with passion about how it's much better now because people in her family died because they didn't have enough to eat and that they're still trying to recover from that time. A couple of others chimed in, acting as if they were letting me in on a secret.

So is this something everyone knows, but is reluctant to speak about to foreigners? Or do they not want to be seen as criticizing Chairman Mao? Or is it something else?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

No heat, no air

I was told before I ever came to China that they didn't turn the heat on in apartments until November 15th, no matter what the weather was like. So I prepared myself for the possibility of a few nights without heat if it gets cold before then.

But I wasn't prepared for the flip side of that. A little over a week ago, the air conditioning stopped working in my apartment. I was having trouble sleeping because the temperature was as high as 83 degrees F.

When I had Building Maintenance come look at it, they seemed to be saying nothing was wrong, and I guessed what the answer was. I called a student to translate and he confirmed the bad news: Between Oct 1 and Nov 15 there is no heat or air conditioning, no matter what the weather. I have one tiny openable window, which doesn't do much good when there's no wind. So I was stuck with 83 degree F temperatures for several nights. It's cooled off some recently, but it could get hot again between now and November 15th.

The pleasures of life in a Communist country!

Friday, October 8, 2010


One of the types of classes that we teach is called Face2Face, where we meet in a small room with just 4 students, to give them more personal attention. This is where I really get to know the students and learn a lot about their thoughts because we encourage them to practice their English by giving their opinions on different subjects.

A couple of days ago, as sometimes happens, there was only one person in my F2F. His self-chosen name was Neo. He was extremely shy and nervous, so I thought he might be autistic. If it hadn't been just him and me, I wouldn't have been able to spent the time with him that I did. I discovered that if you gave him enough time, he could answer most questions and that he didn't hesitate to say he didn't understand.

At the end, he asked where I was from. I said North Carolina and asked if he'd heard of it. He said yes and I said most people know it from Michael Jordan or Bank of America. He said, "Do you know South Carolina?" I said, yes, I was born there. He said, "First Confederate state." I couldn't believe my ears. Most of my students seem to know next to nothing about non-Chinese history.

Then he said he liked Abraham Lincoln and started quoting verbatim and IN PERFECTLY ACCENTED AMERICAN ENGLISH (which had had not done when he was using his own words)-- The Gettysburg Address! I was amazed. He said he liked to read history and that he "likes American freedoms".

The Chinese people are fascinating. I hope to write more about them soon.

Monday, August 23, 2010

tianenmen,forbidden city & beihai park

After 3 months in Beijing, I finally made it to Tianenmen Square, the largest square in the world--even bigger than Moscow's Red Square. It was huge--and a huge letdown. It was a really big square surrounded by incredibly uninspired buildings. As with the Bird's Nest at Olympic Village, the only thing that made it interesting was its history.

Almost as soon as I arrived, a young woman approached me, asking if she could practice her English with me. I thought this would be a win-win since she could speak and read Chinese and I didn't have a tour guide, so sure why not? The same thing happened to me when I was at a museum in Lima, Peru and it was a fun experience.

Her English name was Linda and she was indeed able to tell me some things I didn't know.

She also took pictures of me in front of famous sites, and I took one of her (see accompanying photo).

We had been walking around in the heat for a couple of hours, so she asked if I wanted to stop to get some tea or beer or something. The "beer" suggestion pricked my curiosity right away. She left it up to me where to go. I chose the next decent-looking place we came to that offered tea and beer.

There were only 2 small rooms, so we went into one. It was air-conditioned, and we got to sit in pleasant surroundings. She asked if I wanted tea or beer. It was one o'clock and I thought about getting beer since it was my day off, but I told her I was afraid that after drinking it, and going back in the hot sun that I'd get sick. She made a face and said she'd never heard of that. I began to get more skeptical. So we ordered a pot of tea. After she took a couple of sips, she said she wanted a beer and asked if I was sure I didn't want one. I was sure. . Then the waitress brought out watermelon and crackers. The watermelon was delicious and I scarfed it down.

I asked for the bill. By this time, my suspicions were high. So while waiting for the bill, I was wondering, is this just a nice girl who wanted to practice her English or is she a scammer? Well, the bill comes, and instead of 80 yuan, it's for 760 (over $100)! Right away, I knew. I examined the bill and said the tea was 50 and the beer was 30, so how did she come up with 760? Remember, Linda is translating for me. She said the waitress said she thought I wanted a tea ceremony, not just the tea. Then the waitress handed me a menu, but the prices were entirely different. I got mad. I just gave her 100 kwai and left in a hurry. I left without looking back, but kept wondering if she'd send somebody after us. She didn't.

Forbidden City was VERY impressive, much more than Lama Temple.

I saw a sign for Beihai Park, which was the park that the royal family had landscaped over 300 years ago. So I went in. There were about 20 sites listed within this huge park, many with interesting and curious names. See accompanying photo. Enjoyed taking photos (see attached) and then stumbled upon the beautiful 5 pavilions that the emperor used. (see photo) And a man was playing Chinese flute there, as in Ritan Park! But no singing.

The park is absolutely gorgous--much better than Ritan Park.

I decide to go home. So I try to hail a taxi, but they're ignoring me. It's rush hour, so it might be kind of hard. There are a couple of guys with motorcyle rickshaws.

I figure this will be an adventure. I've always wanted to try one of these things and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I know a lot of people would be scared, but I'd been taking taxi's all over Beijing for 3 months as well as walking on the streets and had become somewhat anured to the chaotic and dangerous Beijing traffic. The weather has cooled, there's no top and he's going a leisurely 30 mph. It's wonderful. I'm seeing parts of the city I've never seen, and at a leisurely pace. Yes, it gets a little dicey when he comes close to a couple of busses, but that's part of the adventure.

Well, it's taking longer and longer, and it's starting to get dark. The darkness combined with all the close calls start to give me pause. He gets onto some busy roads that are almost like freeways. Then he asks me for the card again. Aha! he didn't know where my place was after all! He stops a couple of times and asks me which way to go. If I were near my place, I could tell him, but I haven't seen anything that I recognize. He finally points to the a hotel across the highway and wants to know if that's it. I tell him yes, b/c I realize I probably won't make it home with him. At least at the hotel, I can catch a taxi home. Well, he takes several exits trying to get there. Going down one exit, he stops where other cars are starting to merge. We are right in the middle of all the merging freeway traffic whizzing by on both sides. I wonder what he's doing and he just sits there and looks around. I AM getting scared now. But not as much as when he TURNS AROUND and starts heading back UP the exit ramp we just came down GOING THE WRONG WAY. This is the only time I was really scared.

From the hotel, I took a taxi home.

Some people would think this was a terrible day. But to me, it's all part of the adventure. I have met people and experienced things I wouldn't trade for anything.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ritan Park

I went to Ritan Park near the Central Business District last weekend. It was a delightful, peaceful setting (see more photos on Facebook). Across the pond from me, in a pagoda, a man had what I took to be his little grandson on his shoulders. As I began to take a photo, from this same direction I heard a lyrical, strong tenor voice, singing what appeared to me to be a Chinese melody. As I was wandering and wondering over this lovely park, I continued to hear the man sing at the top of his lungs--but "never louder than pretty". I thought, "How lucky for me that I came on the very day this man with a beautiful voice is here with his family."

At one point, I hear the flute instead of a voice. He's playing the flute now! I'm amazed at how far the sound carries. After luxuriating in these melodies for a while, I am jarred out of my reverie by a female voice. My suspicion that this fortuitious serenade was too good to be true seemed confirmed: I hear instrumentation behind the woman's voice and I can see there's not an orchestra in the pagoda. I think, well it was still nice if not magical.

Eventually, I work my way to said pagoda. And see the man. I do indeed hear piped-in music, but the man is singing also. After a while, the canned music stops, but he continues singing. It is HIS voice that carries across the park. And how lustily he sings! He can barely contain his joy.

I listened as I took photos of the beautiful pagoda. I suspected that the man really wanted me to take his picture since I thought he was glancing at me. But I let him wait a bit. He probably does this every day, I thought, hoping people tell him how wonderful he is. I will certainly oblige him. He IS wonderful--not just his voice but his joie de vivre. So I give him the thumbs up and said "good" in Chinese. He smiles and says something back to me in Chinese, which of course, I can't understand. I raise my camera, indicating I wanted to take his picture, and he smiled and posed (see attached photo). I thank him and he says something else to me in Chinese.

Then he says "please" in Chinese to me a couple of times, then starts dancing with his hand up, inviting me to join him. I shyly decline, but he persists,and begins dancing by himself and singing with even more exuberance. He seems to be the very essence of happiness.

He has made this a lasting memory for me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Not quite a Tower of Babel

IAmong the many concerns I had about teaching in China was whether it would be a problem that I had a Southern (non-standard) accent. No problem! We have "international" teachers from London, Australia, the Phillipines, Canada, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and North Carolina all working on PC's in this cramped room. So you constantly hear English being spoken in several different accents. Of course, we also have several "local" teachers who are from all around China; they are part of the massive migration from the provinces into the cities. My favorite local teacher is from Mongolia, but he sounds just like he's from the US when he speaks English because he lived for 2 years in Georgia and has a good ear.

Our job, of course, is to teach English all day, and in the course of preparing for lessons the local teachers frequently have questions about the meaning of certain words or phrases. So someone will ask you something like "What's the difference between heaven and paradise?" or "Do you say I read it ON the newspaper or IN the newspaper; I heard it ON TV or IN the TV". But sometimes they'll ask a question that we disagree on, usually depending on which country we're from. So the local teacher asks what a "duplex" is and the Londoner tells her it's 2 separate buildings whose walls meet. I clarify that in America, it means one building separated in 2 by a wall. And sometimes the Australian will chip in with "We call that a gaboorabamba." Sometimes it's funny, as when the Londoner asks if anyone needs to use the "guillotine". I ask him what that means and he says "It's the thing you use to cut paper with; what do you call it in the States?" I say, "We call it a ....[dramatic pause] PAPER CUTTER."

On the flip side, none of the international teachers are fluent in Mandarin, so we often need their help with personall issues (talking to the phone company or building maintenance, for instance). But often it's about references in lessons. An international teacher will ask "Will the students know who Elvis is?" (Answer: "No, but they know the Beatles".)

The local teachers frequently speak Mandarin to each other and, since none of the international teachers are fluent, we usually ignore what they're saying. However, last week several of them were talking when I heard the unmistakable sound (to me) of "Keith Bernard". So I pipe up, "I HEARD that!" They all laugh and I ask how my name came up.

Juliet says she just talked to a student who had an unusual accent, and she asked where he was from. Turn out he's from Japan. She said she asked him what level he was. Because he was higher level, she said you have to go see Keith Bernard (international teachers handle the higher levels.)

She said if he'd been lower level, she'd have to refuse to have him in class. I had heard things before, so I said, "Y'all don't really like the Japanese, do you?" Monica, who is teaching me Chinese and is always very sweet, uncharacteristically said with bitterness, "We hate the Japanese." No one needed to say why. We all knew that when the Japanese occupied large parts of China before World War II, they treated the Chinese like dirt and committed many atrocities.

The local teachers went on complaining about the Japanese for a while, eventually saying they were worse than the Nazis. Monica said, "They're still trying to take over our companies...And getting parts for a Japanese car takes forever because they don't like the Chinese."

I'd heard about some bitterness toward the Japanese before, but it's really eye-opening when you hear it for yourself.


Beijing traffic

If I die in Beijing, it's likely to be from a traffic accident. There's very little violent crime here, so I feel safe just about anywhere anytime , day or night. But the traffic accident death toll here is 10 times what it is in developed countries.

A lot of people complain about how crazy the traffic is for people in cars, but that doesn't bother me. Cars and bikes and motorcycles are constantly darting right in front of each other and switching lanes at turbo speed with no notice. And cab drivers almost never curse or get upset at the most brazen things; they just work their way around it, because they know they do it, too.

What does bother me, though, is this kind of behavior when I'm a pedestrian, because pedestrians are a lot more vulnerable. In the US, we're used to the pedestrian having the right of way in doubtful situations, in order to protect the pedestrian. So when I would see the green walk sign (just like we have in the US), I assumed I had the right of way. But here in Beijing, it appears the only time the pedestrian has the right of way is when a car wanting to go straight has a red light. If the car at the stoplight is turning right, he won't stop for you. If someone from an intersecting street is turning left onto your street, he won't stop for you. Also, people coming out of driveways won't stop for you. The pedestrian must stop, or he will be run over. I've seen an elderly woman with a cane crossing the street and a car going at full speed (who definitely saw her) didn't slow down a bit. He came within 3 inches of hitting her.

To be fair, the pedestrians really do push it. On a major street I saw an old man look directly at a cab going 40 mph and step right in front of him from 100 ft away. It's the "They'll stop" method of driving a car, or as we call it in the US, "playing chicken". If one brave person gets in front of a car, no matter how close it is, everyone waiting follows immediately. I've actually done the "Hey! I'm walkin here!" scene from Midnight Cowboy (in English), minus hitting the hood of the car.

What's even worse than the cars are the bicycles and motorcycles, because they ride right on the sidewalk with pedestrians, at full speed. And the motorcycles are electric, so you can't hear them any more than you can hear a bicycle. They can be right behind and pass you on one side, coming wthin one inch. I have lost count of how many times I've come so close to being hit by a bike or motorcylce. It's a several-times-a-day occurence.

BTW, most Chinese sit in the front of the cab instead of the back, same as I did back home the first couple of times I took and cab and didn't know any better. But some of the cabs have barriers separating the driver from the front-seat passenger.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

American-Chinese food v. Chinese-Chinese food

The media talk as if everyone in China is now eating at McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC all the time. While there are lots of them around Beijing, their quantity is more apparent than real because they are on the main streets. They are probably outnumbered by Chinese restaurants by 1000 to 1 IN BEIJING--probably more so elsewhere in China.

I've always liked rice and what I thought was Chinese food. But let me tell you about real Chinese food. First of all, in the supermarkets you can see where people eat every part of the animal possible. This makes sense when you remember that it was only a couple of generations ago that there was mass starvation in China, so they had to eat whatever they could find. So in very nice restaurants you have ox-blood soup, chicken feet, pig knuckles, cow hooves, tripe and stomach. And every kind of creature, from deer to eel to cuttlefish. (People eat dog, but you won't see it on menus.) I've commented before on how there aren't many cats or birds here in Beijing. One of my fellow teachers received a cooked sparrow from one of his students as a gift.

You may think, "But that would be mainly bones", and that would be exactly the point. They LOVE bones, cartilege, fat and skin. My father, a Cajun who grew up on a beef farm, would be right at home with their food. I remember him cooking things like cow tongue and, being a Cajun, he ate rice with every meal. And we used to cut the fat off our meat and give it him; he'd eat every bit of it with delight.

They say it all makes food tastier. Well, in the West, they say putting a bone in soup gives it a lot of flavor, and there's no denying that fat can give food a better taste. And don't you love KFC chicken skin, even though you know it's not good for you? I say, fine, cook it with all of that, but then TAKE IT OUT.

But the Chinese actually PREFER the chewiness of cartilege and the taste of fat itself and will tell you that it's healthier. I would like a lot more Chinese food except that, anything with meat in it is likely to have bones; they seem to aim for a bone in every bite. So in the middle of what might be a good dish, you have to eat around many bones and cartilege and skin.

Chicken is not a traditional Chinese food; it was a luxury for many years, served only at special occasions. While you find a huge variety in the hutongs (neighborhoods) and I'm sure even a lot more in the countryside, most of the meat here is beef, fish, shrimp, squid, and pork. I avoid the beef because of the afore-mentioned. The fish is very often generic, so you don't really know what you're getting, so I avoid it. I'm crazy about shrimp, and sometimes you can get it peeled the way we are used to, but most of the time you are served it whole and you have to take it apart. Squid? I don't like chewy things. Pork is often my best option.

You often can find chicken in Western-oriented places, but you almost never find white meat: they don't like it. And that's what I prefer. I went to KFC, sure that I would find white meat there, but it was nowhere on the menu. As you would expect, the big item was chicken wings.

On menus, you often see raw meat in the photos. For a while, I avoided those dishes because I didn't want raw meat. Then a friend ordered one of those dishes and it came cooked. She explained that they show it raw in the photos so you can see that it's premium beef....

One of the few pleasant food surprises I've had is that lots of dishes have a hard-boiled egg included, even when not in the description. They are very tasty. Other things you find more often in Chinese food and which I like, are peanuts, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin and squash.

They use beans in lots of things and have bean-flavored ice cream (as well as green-tea ice cream) and bean-flavored drinks. I recently saw some bread labelled as rye, the first I'd seen since I've been in China. But when I got home and opened it, I discovered that it was made from red beans and didn't taste anything like rye.

There are more soups than you'd find in American Chinese restaurants. Another very big thing is hotpot, which is like fonduing your entire dinner. But I have seen egg roll on a menu only once, making me think it's an American invention.

There aren't many milk products here. I've been told that most Chinese are lactose-intolerant. In the large supermarket in the bottom of my building, they carry no butter or margarine. NONE. And just a few cartons of milk, which are always expired.

No places bring water unless you ask, and never with ice. In fact, sometimes they'll bring warm water in a teapot. One place brought boiling hot water in drinking glasses. And their tea is not at all like the dark, bitter tea in Chinese American restaurants. Often it's flower tea, made from chrysanthemums, which is very mild. In fact, it almost tastes like water.

When you get on the subway or a taxi or even as you walk in my school, you are often hit with a strong smell of spices, even if no one is eating. Because so many Westerners find this overwhelming, beginning with the Olypmics, the government has forbidden taxi drivers from eating in the cabs OR having spicy food less than an hour before their shift. But as my friend Joel would say, "It ain't a-workin." The smell oozes from their pores: garlic, wasabi, other smells I don't know.

Most food is extremely cheap here. I can eat a good lunch for less than $1.50 and would never consider paying more than $5. Many of the prices are regulated by the government. But the exception is Western food. Whereas in the US, McD's and KFC are cheap alternatives, here they're very expensive, comparatively speaking. A fish sandwich with french fries and a coke is the equivalent of $7. A 10-inch tall bag of Doritos is $5. And wine and liquor are as expensive as in the US.

Just as I prefer the Spanish food in America to most of what I tasted in Spain, so do I prefer (by far) American Chinese food to the Chinese Chinese food. But I am very glad to have experienced all of this for myself. It is facinating to see what we take for granted turned on its head.


When students sign up for classes, they are asked if they want to use an English name. Most do. However, they are not given any advice or feedback about what are appropriate names. As a result, some have unusual names.

Some of the names:
Butterfly -She got tired of having people refer to her as "fly" since she doesn't like that pesky insect, so she decided to change her name to Teresa. When I pointed out to her that "fly" can mean really cool, she said she might go back to Butterfly.
Apple -contrary to what you might think, this is an elegant middle-aged woman.
There are several named "Cherry".

Yoko -when I saw her name I said, "Oh, you chose the name from Yoko Ono". She had no idea who that was.

Sijean -he "invented" this name and later learned that there are only 3 people with this name in the US; he was proud of this fact. (His father is a music producer, who helps Chinese artists make records.)

Rachel is a journalist for a Chinese car magazine. She just returned from Berlin where VW paid all expenses and let her try out a new Audi model.

James just returned from scaling Mt McKinley in Alaska. He's a tour guide for a living. I brought a camera to class one day to demonstrate a lesson; he spontaneously picked up the camera and took a picture of his mouth. That's his photo you see here. Beautiful teeth, no?

Maria is a very interesting woman. She has been both a university professor and a lawyer. Next month, she is going to Philadelphia to play in a bridge tournament.

Simon - this is a woman. I explained to her that this was a man's name, and that the female version is Simone. As usual with the students, she didn't care and has kept her name as Simon.

Winnie - his name in Chinese means "bear", and he knew that Winnie the Pooh was a bear.

Princess - never was there a more appropriately named student. She talks about how people with money are better people. Actually, she's a pretty nice person.

Lancelot - why not? No Guinevere's, though.
Wanzy -remember this is her chosen ENGLISH name.
Elpha -actually a German name, but she probably thought it would be ok to use since it's a western name.
Sven - a Swedish name, of course. See above.

We also have an employee named Bingo.

And my favorite: we have a supervisor whose family name is Sun. For her "English" name, she chose Rainer. So her name is Rainer Sun.

BTW Some laugh when I tell my name. To them, it sounds like "kiss" b/c of the way they pronounce it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Positive reviews

I'm happy to report that I've been getting a lot of favorable comments from students. I spoke to one student by name --Ingrid, an older woman--and she said with awe, "You remembered my name!". After one of my first classes, when I was still team-teaching, she had said to me (unsolicited) "You are an excellent teacher!"

We have 3 basic type of classes. One is the Workshop, which is the old-fashioned structure with the teacher up front and 25 students in desks. Another is Face2Face,where 4 students and a teacher are around a small desk and students are given much more opportunity to talk and receive personal feedback. We use Powerpoint for both of these. The third is English Corner, which takes place in the lobby and is designed to give students a chance to speak with each other at length in English while the teacher observes and helps as necessary. Each of these are on various topics each week.

Each student signs up for one workshop, 2 Face2Faces and one English Corner each week. When they sign up, however, they don't know which teacher they will have.

As I walked into class the other day, some students were already there in their desks, and one older woman said "Oh, it's you! I'm so glad. I like your teaching." A young woman asked me which classes I was teaching so she could try to sign up for them.

About 85% of our students are female, for some reason. The word is that some women see you (teacher, Westerner) as good husband material and possibly a ticket to the US. I'm not sure about that, though. A young male student said to me yesterday, "You see the class is full; everyone wants your class." Another young man said, "I like your teaching style very much."

I'd be interested in hearing the reaction of other teachers as to what to make of such comments in general. Are they buttering you up? We don't give or grade tests, so I doubt it's that. How can you tell if it's genuine? And I wonder how Chinese students differ from Western students with such comments, as well as the negative ones I mentioned in a previous post.

Banking in China

I was impressed with Chinese banking at first because they have the very civilized concept of having seats for customers while they wait. Can you imagine? You take a number, sit down and watch the screen for your number to appear, and go to the window it tells you to.

But since then, I've seen the craziness in the system. For instance, apartment rent is required to be paid 3 months at a time (in advance, of course). Nobody uses checks here, so I tried to do a transfer from my B of A account. I get a message that such transfers are not reliable in this country and may take a week or more. Also, there is a $45 international transfer fee.

So after much research, I discovered what apparently is the best way to do it in China. I go to the ATM at my bank (ICBC) to withdraw 12,300 RMB. Some complications: (a) The largest denomination bill is the 100 RMB, so that means I'll need to get 123 bills. (b) You can only withdraw 2500 RMB at a time, so I have to make 5 withdrawals. The number of withdrawals allowed per day varies by ATM, but I have found one (luckily, just across the street) that allows 5 in one day.

Next, I take my 123 bills and go to my landlord's bank (Bank of China). I complete a deposit slip with my landlord's account number and give them the 123 bills. Mind you, I have to do all of this speaking very little Chinese. Sometimes there is someone there who speaks English, and sometimes not.

Also, there are fees every time you use a foreign bank card or charge card.

My Chinese bank card account (from ICBC) is really just a cash card, and is sometimes accepted and sometimes not. There are no monthly statements. The only way to see your balance is to check on the ATM. There is NO way to see the transactions which led to your monthly balance. Well, actually there is a way, but everyone agrees it's very complicated.

To use it for online access, first of all it's all in Chinese. You have to get a chip put in your card and keep a minimum balance of at least 20k the first 30 days.
Instead of the one number on the back, they have about 30 #s and each time you use it, they tell you which number you need to give. Then you scratch it off. When you've used up all the numbers, you go back to the bank to get them to add more numbers.

Instead, I follow local custom and just carry around a bunch of cash with me. You have to keep up with deposits and withdrawals yourself to confirm the balance.

Just as people here don't use checks, so they don't use voice mail. At all. Everyone texts a lot. They're not very fond of email, though they may be persuaded to use it if you ask them to.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dogs and cats

I was curious about cats and dogs since I'd heard the Chinese eat them. So I was very surprised to see so many people with dogs as pets. My first 2 weeks I probably saw hundreds of them, almost all small. But I never saw a single cat.

I've been here 2 more weeks now and have seen hundreds more dogs, but have seen a total of 3 cats. I asked at work why that might be and one of the Chinese teachers said "Because they know to run when they see someone coming." Yes, they like their cats here; just not the same way we like them.

I also learned that while they now see little dogs as cute, big dogs are still fair game. Sure enough, I have seen very few big dogs, although that could also be attributed to how small the apartments are and that no one has their own yard.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The ups and downs of teaching

This is my second week of solo teaching, although I have only a 3/4 load. Next week I'll carry a full load. I've never been paid to teach before, unless you count being an organist/choir director for 5 years. And that was only one 2-hour rehearsal a week. Back in 1976 (yes, that long ago) I student-taught middle school History for 3 months. Other than that, zip.

But growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher, and that's what I went to college for. I've always felt it was my calling. Now, As I've said many times, I'm "following my bliss" by doing what I've always wanted to do--not only teach, but live in a totally different culture and learn a new language. Boy howdy, am I getting that now.

But now the pressure is on. After having completely changed the course of my life at age 53 and taken a huge pay cut, will this new career pan out? If it doesn't, I'm back at square one.

Though I've always felt like a teacher at heart, I've also always been afraid of public speaking, due to lack of confidence and insecurity. That's a big hurdle for someone who has to speak all day to classes of 25 people. But there have been times in the past when I did well with my public speaking, I think.

My sense of security has changed a great deal since I lost my job of 19 years a little over a year ago. By necessity, I'm much more comfortable with uncertainty than I was before. And something has changed to my sense of self as well. There are jobs you can do well and jobs you can do well enough. But some people are lucky enough to know in their BONES that what they are doing is right. Finally, at my age, I feel that lucky. And this whole experience has given me a confidence I never had before.

Still, there have been nagging doubts. My first week of team teaching, there were....problems. In one of my first classes, I got to the classroom early , set up up the projector, lowered the screen and was reviewing my notes, waiting for the students to come in. I was wondering why no students had come in yet, when the guy I was team-teaching with rushed into the room and said "Keith, you're in the wrong classroom!" So I gather my things and walk next door into a classfull of students who know what a stupid thing I've just done. With all eyes on me, I now have to log in to the computer and go to the right subdirectories to pull up the correct Powerpoint presentation. That's another thing. Powerpoint? hardly ever done it before. So I was pretty nervous and flubbed it up. I thought I heard a couple of giggles.

But I knew my lesson and was ready to teach it. And after many years of emotional stupidity, I have finally learned that being self-conscious now would help me exactly ZERO percent and that confidence was the only option. So I plunged ahead as if everything were great.

And guess what? They came around. As luck would have it, the class was about how to make small talk. So, as planned, I demonstrated for them how NOT to do it. I pretended to be meeting another student and was painfully shy about it. Well, not only did the students laugh, my fellow teacher let out a big guffaw. I think I surprised them.

But I had some more problems in some other classes. I love Dilbert cartoons and think they are perfectly suited for a lot of the business situations that we teach, so in my first solo teaching I opened the class with not one, not two but THREE Dilbert cartoons. I was warned that the Chinese have a different sense of humor than we do. Plus, humor requires a pretty sophisticated understanding of the language and culture. And finally, it is subjective. Lots of people in the US don't "get" Dilbert. But I cast all those negatives aside, brave with my newfound confidence.

Not. One. Titter. From 25 people in 3 different classes (for a total of 75 people). By the third class, I had deleted the last cartoon and removed the last panel from the first cartoon. Nothing worked. That flustered me. Plus, despite my careful arrangements ahead of time, when I tried to go from the cartoon to my Powerpoint presentation, the Powerpoint was gone. So the class sat there while I fiddled with it for an eternity. Eventually I got it working, but I could tell I'd lost the class.

I got a little paranoid, thinking I heard people talking about "the new teacher" and how bad he was. At the end of the 3rd class, one of the students (appropriately self-named Princess) said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "You need to practice." (I don't care what they always says about the Chinese being indirect. In my experience so far, they can be extremely direct.)

So my confidence was shot. Then I went to lunch with a fellow teacher whom I like and respect, and she repeated to me that I was a "natural" teacher.

Later that same week, I came up with a warmup of Chat Acronyms that was extremely popular with all 3 classes, and that set a new tone.

Today, I taught my 3rd class on "Marketing Warfare", using military terms to discuss business. As part of the presentation, I got to talk about Alexander the Great and Napoleon. I explained how Mao and Sam Walton had similar tactics (by winning over the small towns and countryside first when they were unable to compete in the cities). I could tell they were fascinated.

It wasn't until class started that I realized that 2 of my students are from Russia (easy to spot with their fair complexion and blonde hair). So, on the spot, I worked in about Napolean's disastrous Russian campaign, and they ate it up. I was in my element. This last class was actually ENTHUSIASTIC. What a rush.

Maybe this teaching thing will work out after all.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A REAL Culture Clash

My first 2 weeks were very boring at work (just observations, training and a lot of downtime) and very busy outside of work, trying to get situated. Finally, this week it's picking up at work and slowing down outside of work. I've team-taught several times now and am loving it.

The students here are eager to learn because they pay the equivalent of $3000 to take the course. That's a huge amount for the average Chinese, so these are relatively well-to-do, professional people. I need to remember that when I want to generalize about the Chinese people: that I'm seeing a select few, which are not the typical Chinese.

I am simultaneously impressed by how much English the students know and how poorly most of them speak it. That's because, since the 1980's all Chinese students begin learning English in the 3rd grade. However, their system here is all about conjugating, grammar and repitition; there is no practice speaking it or using it in real-life situations. That's where companies like mine come in: we teach them conversational and business English and give them a lot of opportunities to practice speaking it with the teachers. Thank goodness for the limits of the Chinese education system, else I wouldn't have a job!

When I tell people I'm from the US, most of them make no comment. Some ask where in the US, and when I say North Carolina, most haven't heard of it. Of those who have, a couple actually know Charlotte because of Bank of America, but most of them--the young guys actually--know it because it's where Michael Jordan is from and went to school. One of my students actually said to me "Michael Jordan is a god!" Hmmmm. Basketball is very big here. Right across from my apartment building, there is a public basketball court, and guys are frequently playing there. One guy knew Charlotte because it's the home of an NBA team.

A lot of the students are quite chauvinistic about China...more about that in a later blog. But a couple have commented about the US having more individual freedoms.

My company prefers to hire all native-English speakers (referred to as international teachers), but can't find enough who are qualified, so about half our teachers are Chinese. Today in our weekly staff meeting, one of the Chinese teachers said "I want to say something". Now, we frequently counsel our students on how not to be too direct, to soften what they say. For instance, when practicing being a waiter at a restaurant, one of the students opened with "What do you want to eat?" We told him to say something like "May I take your order?"

So when the Chinese teacher--W-- said "I want to say something", I thought, "I hope she didn't teach that lesson because she doesn't understand the concept." Well, it turns out she had no intention of being indirect or softening her words. She had a complaint about how management was taking a student's side in an dispute between her and the student. She launched into a lengthy explanation and diatribe. After about 10 minutes, the Senior Teacher--J-- said "This is really not appropriate--let's move on". W objected, so J said, "OK, one more minute". So she had her minute, then J cut her off.

Back in the teachers' lounge, W attacked J for cutting her off. A couple of the other Chinese teachers spoke up for her as well. (All of us international teachers pretended to be going about our business, not noticing this ruckus.) J kept saying it was inappropriate. Then W said "You're from America--you're supposed to understand free speech. You wouldn't do this in America."

Erase from your mind the notion of the Chinese--at any level of society--being humble and subservient. They are a proud people and are being allowed to speak up in ways they weren't previously. The Chinese teachers' reactions may have been because they haven't yet learned the limitations of free speech, and it may be related to what happend in the Cultural Revolution in the 60's and 70's. More about that in another blog.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


"Don't get the impression of the typically mind-boggling bureaucracy associated
with communism. My experience here is that things are generally run very
efficiently. The problems I've described here are difficult because (a) it's a
different system than I know, and (b) I don't speak the native language. The
subway system is fantastic, the banks in the US could learn from the way they do
some things here, the streets are very logical (especially when you learn what
the words mean), and every where you go people are cleaning or sweeping.

After I paid the landlords and we signed the contract, we had to go to the
police station to register my change in address. THAT was not very efficient,
but still it was only about 30 minutes. Jason called the cable company for me
so I could get internet at home, and they were there within an hour. Take that,
US cable companies! Unfortunately, the building management had no one to escort
them to the phone room, so I made an appointment for 9 am Monday morning. And
the guy arrived at EXACTLY 9 am. Take that again, US cable!"

June 2 -an electric day

"Remember, the night after I moved in, I rushed to add money to the electricity
card (see photo) b/c the landlord had warned me that it was about to run out? But I didn'thave time to go to the electric room in my building to actually update the
electricity? Well, the landlord wasn't kidding. At a certain point Saturday
morning, I realized that it was getting warm. I checked the thermostat and it
showed NOTHING. No lights were working, nothing. Brilliant Bernard figures out
that the electricy in truth really did run out.

Easy. I have my electric card. Right here. No? It must be HERE. I tore the
place apart trying to find the card that I had already put money on. All this
while, I know I need to get to the bank to withdraw the remainder of the upfront
money I will owe to the landlord later that morning at 10 (b/c I had maxed out
the previous day). Which to do first? Electricity is important, but the
landlord will be VERY upset if I don't have all my money and may kick me out,
then the electricity won't matter. But I think of one more thing before I head
to the bank: check the pocket of the pants I was wearing yesterday. Voila!"

"I start to head out the door to the breaker room, which is just down the hall.
But thank goodness I realize that my apartment door lock is electronic also, so
if I close the door and the electric card doesn't work properly, I can't get
back in the apt. So I leave the door open a crack and hope no one tries to be a
good neighbor and close my door for me while I'm gone.

I find the meter next to my apartment number and sure enough, it's showing
'00000' while every else's has numbers on theirs. I insert the card and,
magically, numbers appear: 00654. But after a few seconds, the numbers go away.
I try several times, but no matter what I do the numbers go back to zero. I
head back to my apt to see if the electricity is on; it is not. But at least
no one tried to be a good neighbor by closing my door.

What to do? I head down to the building management, who have not been helpful
previously because none of them spoke any English, but what are my options? On
the way down on the elevator, a woman boards at one floor. She looks very
un-Asian: blond hair, blue eyes, and even I noticed that she was gorgeous (with
no makeup). Jason had told me that some famous actresses live in my building,
but I figured he meant some local weather girls. I have, however, noticed
several extremely attractive women in the building, so maybe he's right. Any
way I ask her if she speaks English. She smiles and says 'Of course'. Hallelujah! I tell her my problem and she answers in broken English. Eventually I realize what I need to do and thank her, then ask her where she's from. Russia. (Here in Beijing, we are quite close to Russia.)"

"Armed with this new information, I return to the electric room and see the breakers she referred to. Just like in your breaker box at home, my breaker was going the opposite direction of all the other, so I turned it back on and inserted my card, then ran to the apt to see if it worked. Indeed, it did. Now I can go to the bank and hope I get back in time for the meeting with the landlord.

My China bank is a short walk, and I head down there. I insert the card for my American account. I maxed out yesterday, but it's the next day so I should be able to get more money, right? Wrong. It gives me the same message I had yesterday about maxing out. I try several times and always get the same result. (Computers are funny that way. They don't care how persistent you are; if it does not compute, they won't change their minds just because you're upset). I realize that my employer should by now have put money in my China account, so I try that. Bingo! I make 3 withdrawals from that account and NOW I have the money I need. And electricity to boot. If I
do nothing else today, I've accomplished a lot."

"Don't get the impression of the typically mind-boggling bureaucracy associated
with communism. My experience here is that things are generally run very
efficiently. The problems I've described here are difficult because (a) it's a
different system than I know, and (b) I don't speak the native language. The
subway system is fantastic, the banks in the US could learn from the way they do
some things here, the streets are very logical (especially when you learn what
the words mean), and every where you go people are cleaning or sweeping.

After I paid the landlords and we signed the contract, we had to go to the
police station to register my change in address. THAT was not very efficient,
but still it was only about 30 minutes. Jason called the cable company for me
so I could get internet at home, and they were there within an hour. Take that,
US cable companies! Unfortunately, the building management had no one to escort
them to the phone room, so I made an appointment for 9 am Monday morning. And
the guy arrived at EXACTLY 9 am. Take that again, US cable!"

June 1 -moving day & signing the contract

"Have had full days at work and still doing stuff for the apartment, so I haven't
had much time to write.

When we left off, I had just described to you the all-day affair on Wednesday of
looking for an apartment from 10 am to 8pm, which culminated in my giving the
landlords a holding fee, reviewing the contract, and agreeing to meet on Saturday
to sign the contract and me pay the remainder of the upfront money.

I get to move in the NEXT DAY at 6pm. I can't tell you how eager I was to get
out of the hotel so I could begin to have some sense of normalcy, and have a
place that would be my retreat from the rest of the world. A HOME. And so I
could concentrate on work.

That next day--Thursday--I slept in very late b/c I was exhausted from the day before--probably till 11:30 am. Then I took a cab to
the area around my new apartment to familiarize myself with the area. My main
concern was how far the subway station was from my building. This would
determine the length of my daily commute and how good a fit the location was for
me. I was still skeptical of Jason, who told me that the station was 10-15
minutes away, but never actually showed it to us. If it was too far away, I was
considering backing out of the deal. I walked in every direction all afternoon,
but even using a map, could never find the subway station."

"I took a cab back to the hotel to pack so I'd be ready for Jason. I had warned him that I had 3
large boxes to move, so in addition to his own car, he'd brought along a buddy
to help carry the boxes. I was so concerned about the subway station and things
at work that I didn't plan at all for my first night in the apartment. Terre,
the American woman who Jason took around the same time as me (aka Miss American
Princess), decided to stay in her hotel another night. This is one time when
she may have been wiser.

Jason and his buddy drop off the boxes at my new place, congratulate me, and
leave me to my own devices. I am dead tired, so I go up to the loft where my
bed is and realize that the landlords have left me nothing but the furniture. I
had no bed sheets, no comforter, no pillow. Usually I'm pretty particular
about how I sleep, but I had no choice. So I stretched out across the mattress
and slept."

"The next morning I am grimy as all get-out and need to take a shower. It's at
that time that I realize have no towels. (I did have the soap and shampoo from
my hotel room). What to do? You improvise. I just had to think, 'What of my
belongings here can I dry myself with?' The only option I could come up with
was my dirty clothes. So after I took a shower, I dried myself with the dress
shirt I had worn the previous day and dried my hair with the shirt I had worn
the day before that. But I was in MY OWN HOME, and I was happy.

The following day--Friday, I had to go for a complete medical exam, which was
required to extend my visa. After that, I had to go to work. The HR person
from work (Lucia Loo) was accompanying three of us to the medical center for our
tests since the company was paying for it. But with less than a week in China,
she tells us to meet her at a subway station way the hell on the other side of
town. Think from Manhatten to Queens. Even so, it wouldn't have been bad
except that I never did find the subway stop that was supposed to be near my
house. So I resolved to take a cab, which thankfully are EVERYWHERE in Beijing."

"Now I know that I have to pay the remainder of the upfront money on Saturday,
and there's not enough in my China account to cover it. I have to also get
some money from my American account, and on both accounts everyone tells me the
only way to do it is to withdraw cash from the respective ATM's. But, just as
in the US, there is a limit on how much you can withdraw per transaction and per
day. So I have to begin getting the money out today in case I max out, and then
can get the rest out Saturday morning, before the settlement meeting with the
landlords. So I make 3 withdrawals before I have maxed out for the day.

They have also scared me to death about paying for the water and the electricity;
they say these have to be paid in advance and that I'm almost out of both. So 2
more things to do before I meet Lucia in Chinese Timbuktu at 10 am. I go to the
lobby of my apartment and discover that no one there speaks any English, but
they finally understand that I want to pay my water bill. They manage to
explain to me that it's paid up and that I will receive a bill at the end of the
month. Ok, one less thing to worry about. Now on to my Chinese bank to
charge my electric card. You see, not only do you have to pay your electricity
in advance (so I've been told), but you have to get that money put on your
electric card (like a phone card) and then take that electric card to the actual
breakers for your floor and insert it next to the one for your apartment in order
to add the electricity. Well, I added the money to the card with no problem. I planned to actually put the card in the breakers that night because there's
no time to do it now."

By this time it's almost 9:30 am. I didn't panic b/c I thought it would be a
simple matter of getting a cab and getting to the station in 30 minutes. The
first cab, I showed the instructions which Lucia had kindly provided in Chinese
for just such an occasion. The driver looks at it and starts saying something
vociferously in Chinese. I don't understand because it's written right there
for him: how hard could it be? Finally, I realize I'm not going anywhere with
this guy, so I get out and hail another cab. Same routine with this next guy, but at
least he smiles and is nicer. I am more persistent and finally he starts to
drive off. HOME FREE!

Well, he drives and drives and drives and pretty soon
it's after 10, when I'm supposed to be there already. And the subway station he
drops me off at is not the one I'm supposed to meet them at. So I have to
figure out how to get to the correct station, and finally arrive at the XiErQi
station at about 10:30, wondering whether they waited for me or moved on. THEY
WAITED! Turns out Terre had a similar experience and had arrived there just a
little before me. Went through all the medical exams very easily and
efficiently. Oh, did I mention I was doing all of this on an empty stomach
because were weren't allowed to eat or drink before the tests that morning? So
after the test I wolf down a meal, then have to work the rest of the day, till
about 8:30."

"At the end of the day, I take the subway back to the station I know is supposed
to be nearest my home (Liu Fang) and hope I will recognize where I am so that I
can find my way home. Well, I do recognize it and realize why I wasn't able to
find it on foot: there was absolutely nothing marking it as a subway station!
I had probably passed right by it before.

Well, I'm settled in now and have bought stuff for the house (including towels
and sheets) and have an internet connection. So all the pieces are in place and
I can concentrate on work. It seems to me the worst is now past."

See ALL photos and related commentary on my Facebook page.

May 30 -Chinese English

"No time today to do a decent followup on moving into my new home, so I'll just
let you know about some English I saw on a young women's t-shirt:

'Get off with his hands'.

Actually, if you think about it, it's NOT gibberish. But I wonder if she knows
what it means?"

May 29 - apartment hunting

"If I were trying to convince you that I was wise in my choice of apartment, I
probably shouldn't tell you that my bathtub is right next to my dining room
table. Or that the entire apt is about one-thrid the size of my house in Charlotte. Or that it's a 15 minute walk to the subway. Or that the bed is hard as wood.

But what if I told you that the bathtub is circular--2 yards in
diamater, and that I have a separate shower with a rain faucet? Or that the
apartment comes with 3 plasma TV's? Or that on the ground floor of my building
(I'm on the 18th floor), there is a 4-story department store, a supermarket, a Starbucks, and aHaagen-Daas and within easy walking distance are 2 Walmart-like stores, a Pizza Hut, a KFC and more Chinese restaurants that you can shake a stick at?

The company gave me 2 days off (VERY generous, but much needed for my mental health) and provided an agent to help me find an apartment. Went with Terre from work, whose also looking for an apartment. (see photos)

The agent's name is Jason--Chinese, probably in his early 20's. (see photos) He is such a wheeler-dealer, he reminds me of Ari from Entourage. He has an iPhone and a regular phone and is constantly going back and forth between the two.
He'll be speaking very niceley, almost lovingly, then suddenly starts shouting
and bangs his fist on the dashboard."

The Chinese have adapted extremely well to capitalism. And they're good at it."

"It was like buying a house in the US. Even though this is a modern high-rise
which was built less than a year ago, all the apts are owned by separate
landlords. You even get a deed when you sign the lease. I settled on this one
apartment pretty quickly out of the 11 that he showed us, but he was back and
forth on the phone with the landlord, negotiating the monthly rent and the
amount required up front. During the course of the day, the amounts and terms
for this one apartment kept changing. Then he said I needed to pay a holding
fee in case someone else rented it, which I refused to do at the time. He
showed me similar apartments (each with different landlords) in the same
building, going through the same negotiations with them. Like juggling 5 balls
at the same time. I was getting worried, so I told him to put a hold on a
particular one. He called right away, but said that it had been snapped up.
Then he told me the price had gone up on another one. I thinking he was playing
me. Remember, all these conversations are in Chinese (some for 15 minutes at a
time), while I'm sitting there having no idea what he's saying. I have to trust
him; after all my company arranged for him. They told me I could look on my
own, but can you imagine, with me not speaking a word of the language and not
knowing any of the rules, etc.?

"Also, Jason's English is not always the best and there was a good bit of confusion between us, one detail of which was
serious. (He says 'hello' very funny: the 'o' is like the French 'u', where you say 'ee' and then pucker your lips, sort of like the 'u' in 'bush). Then he
stretches it out because he's trying to be very cool, and it comes out 'Helluuuuuuuuuuu.' It comes out very queenly.)

We started at 10 am on Thursday and went straight through to 8pm without a break for lunch or dinner. If he was trying to wear me down, it worked. We finally
arranged to meet with the landlord of the very first place I looked at, the one I originally refused to put a hold on. We met and agreed on terms, but get
this. After the fuss they made about requiring earnest payment to hold it for one day, THEY proposed that I could move in after giving them only earnest money
that night, and we wouldn't sign a contract or settle up until 2 days later on Saturday."

"They read through the contract several times and made corrections in all 3
copies; I found a few also. We initalled the changes in all 3 copies. The
contract was in Chinese and English, but some of the changes were in Chinese, so
they told me what it said and had me write it in English, then initial. One
addendum they made was that I would do no 'power cooking'. Jason tried to
explain to me what this was by waving his hands up and down, but I never could
understand. Finally, he said 'no Chinese cooking'. Really, here in Beijing?
Turns out the previous tenant had damaged the stovetop with 'power cooking'.
Well, I don't cook much any way, so we worked it out.

I'll tell you next time about my first night in my apartment."

May 27 -racial attitudes & bikes

"I was working with some students to practice their English and asked what kind
of movies they liked. One said 'Wampah'. It took me a while to realize that
she was saying 'Vampire'. The Chinese have a difficult time saying 'v' and use
'w' instead. The 'ah' at the end (instead of 'ire') I think uses the British
pronunciation of the second syllable in 'vampire'. One person said something
that I thought was 'vomitting' that turned out to be 'environment'. One word
that is almost impossible for some people to pronounce is 'refrigerator'; I
told one person they could say 'fridge'. That made her happy.

Race is openly discussed here (at least in the circles I've been in) and
seemingly without embarassment or political correctness as we usually see in the
US. At our boot camp, which included a black teacher and a black manager (both
Americans), they showed a slideshow which a previous student had made about the
different attitudes--in many areas--between Asians and Westerners. One set of
the logos was meant to demonstrate that Westerners lay in the sun to get darker,
while Asians stay out of the sun b/c they DON'T want to get darker. Previously
I had heard a couple of Chinese say in the presence of Terre (black girl from
US) that they avoided the sun b/c they didn't want to get darker, and also used
whitening cream. Terre had already mentioned to me that she was acquainted with
this in Japan as well. I had a Korean roommate many years ago who said that
also. I wonder if part of it is b/c peasants working in the field get darker,
and it's like us not wanting to be considered redneck."

"Another surprise is how big the cars are here compared to Europe. Of course,
there are tons of bikes, bike-rickshaws and other bike-like contraptions, but I
have seen almost no motorcycles here, or those tiny SMART-type cars either. (see photos) If you move up from a bicycle at all, you go straight for a big car, to show that you have arrived. [I've since learned that motorcycles are banned in most of the city. Not sure why].

That's it for now. Hope to buy a cell phone today. Also have to arrange for my
big boxes to be moved from my hotel to my new apartment tonight, when I give
them the earnest money and I move in. They say I can get one of the locals to
move it cheaply on one of the many bike-contraptions they have here."

May 26 Part 2 -as Communist as my foot

"A public sign above the street in the capital of communist China: 'Use Wisdom
to Create Wealth in Wangjing [a Beijing district]'. Today's China is about as
communist as my foot. As others have told me, it is much more capitalist here
than in the US b/c there are very few rules to protect consumers in terms of
health, binding of contracts, traffic rules and the consequences of a vibrant,
chaotic society. As Jim G said, it's like the Wild Wild West.

However, it IS authoritarian; this is by no means a democracy. You have to be
careful what you say about the government, Taiwan, Tibet, and other sensitive
topics. The govt does not like dissent and will tolerate only so much of it.
Plus, every citizen and ex-pat must register with his district's police station
each time they move. I did that when I arrived at my hotel and will do it again
when I sign my new apartment lease. And everytime you leave the country, when
you return, you have to inform the police."

"Still, in many ways the authoritarianism seems benevolent to me. I look at the
extremely expensive & inefficient way we have done health care in the US plus
the decades-long debate about how to change it, that only recently culminated in
a major change. I can't speak personally about the health care system here in
China, but I don't think the massive changes that have occurred recently in this
country such as the many billions spent modernizing Beijing would have happened
as easily in the US. The key is as long as it's done for the benefit of the
general population as opposed to enhance some government official's power or
line someone's pockets. I know that does happen, but I believe there can be
definite benefits to central planning."

May 26 Part 1 -busy busy day

"Today was a BIG DAY. I rented my house in Charlotte (as a landlord) and I
rented an apartment in Beijing (as a renter). Also opened an account with the
International Commerce Bank of China. The bank card, like many things here, has a cartoon character on it--see photo.

The rental process here is maddening, especially when you're dealing in 2
languages. I've been going since 10 this morning until now (8:22pm) with no
lunch and no dinner, so I'm too exhausted to say anything else. Except that I
have accomplished a lot today."

May 25 Part 2 -eating in Beijing v the American South

"Not going to work today b/c they have set aside today for apartment-hunting. So
I'm using the one laptop that everyone here at the hotel has to share; I'm not
used to laptops, so in addition to reply boxes in Chinese and the slow connection,
I'm learning how to use a laptop better! It's all good; it's about time I

Yes, there are much much more exotic ingredients in Chinese food (exotic = nasty
in many cases) but I am avoiding all of those for now. I'm amazed at how
comfortable I feel here after only 4 days and not knowing any language except
hello and thank you."

"I told someone I wanted to try fried crickets and they said there is a certain section of town where you can find them and that's it's mainly for the tourists.
However, in my wanderings I have seen a lot of strange ingredients, so I'm not sure that's true. The Chinese have been poor for a long time and even had mass
starvation 40 years ago, so they have a history of eating everything it's possible to eat. You find this in all poorer countries; even in Italy the
restaurants had innards that you would never see on an American menu.

Also, there is a big dichotomy between the provinces and the big cities. The big
cities are changing very quickly, but there are a lot of people who moved here from the provinces who still like their home food, much of which is 'exotic'. I
think it's akin to pig's feet and chitlins in the South. Because people were so poor 1 or 2 generations ago, it's what they grew up with and it's their comfort
food. But your average Southerner does NOT eat these things. The students at our schools also don't eat these things, but their parents do or did at one time.

Apartment hunting today!! Also hope to open a bank account and buy a phone. I brought my phone from the states; my employer gave me a SIM card with some money
on it but the phones in the US are usable only w/ a particular carrier. Here, you can use any phone w/ any carrier."

May 25 Part 1 -flower tea, the English, and Tomato

"I've had 2 authentic Chinese meals now. So far, the food is pretty similar to
what we see in the States, but these are places that Westerners go. (Remember not being able to find a place to eat near my hotel that I was comfortable with?) One thing I'd never heard of was Lotus root; it tasted good.

Also, the first place had flower tea, which didn't have much taste and had white
specks of what I thought was flour, later learned was chrysantemum, floating in it. The 2nd meal, they just had warm water in a teacup. Neither meal had any rice. I was told that people will think you're cheap if you order rice at first b/c it shows you're trying to save money. Only at the end, if your guests still aren't full should you order rice. Went with a group at lunch today and learned to use chopsticks; I was even picking up peanuts with them.

Had English First boot camp today. A great bunch of people, including some from
Ireland, New Zealand, Wales, Australia, and several from England. Also, one
guy from California. Turns out my boss is from an hour up the road from
Charlotte--Thomasville. A black guy with a downhome sense of humor. Another
teacher at my office is from Wilmington, NC."

As for the British, do they STILL not have dental plans in England?? Everyone I meet
from there has bad teeth. Also, one of the English guys, when we were
successful at something actually said 'Huzzah!' Hearing them reminded me that
the British say 'different to' instead of 'different from'. I also discovered
that what we call a white board marker, they call a 'board pen'.

The students here are all encouraged to choose English names, and apparently
they have wide lattitude. I met one yesterday named 'Tomato' (pronounced the
British way) and another name 'Lala'.

I'll leave you with this: There was a slide show which discussed the concept of
entrepreneurship. Guess which picture they showed to represent that concept?
The Statue of Liberty."

May 24 -the vagabond life & adventures with food

"Walked for an hour yesterday to find something I was comfortable eating. I'm in
a pretty 'local' area. Looked for packaged foods, thinking that would be safest
and most familiar. Found very little. Amazing how 3rd world China still is.

Finally, for supper I bought some potato chips (which taste similar to ours) and
a thing that looked like moon pies. Guess what they tasted like? Exactly
like our moon pies! So that was my supper. Very filling.

First breakfast at the hotel: I like my coffee first thing in the morning, so when I saw that none of the coffee pots were filled and that they would fix coffee upon request, I prepared myself for instant coffee, which I really hate. Imagine my surprise when they brought out wonderful espresso! Every thing else was very plain, but I'm NOT complaining.

Instead of napkins, they have kleenex. BUT it may say more about us than about them that we think we have to have a separate product for each and every function.

Can't wait to get my own apartment so I'll have a place I can call home and get
set up on internet, phone, etc. Very much a vagabond now. HOWEVER, I feel
confident about my ability to survive here. I love the way pedestrians dart in
and out of traffic--that's my style! Even tho it drives other people crazy.

The specks of pollution I thought I saw last night were actually like dandelion
from the trees they have here.

"Getting around easily on the subway. My school is only 2 stops from my hotel
and it is in a shopping mall that is even more Western than the supposed
'western section'. I was like a kid in a candy store with all the familiar
products. They even had Mountain Dew, which I couldn't find anywhere in

Of course, I'll be eating Chinese food, but the area in walking distance from my
hotel is very local--no western shops--so the conditions are questionable.
When you pass by public toilets and some alleyways, there is a strong smell of
feces and urine. So I'm being careful. In the western sections, I am much more
comfortable. I haven't gotten sick yet, so it's working so far.

They're here now to take me to my school for the first time--today was

May 23 - getting to know Beijing

"I'm settling in now. At a (very hip) internet cafe that I found about 30 minutes walk from my hotel. Trying to understand currency. Tried paying for
this internet access with what I THOUGHT was a 5 RMB but they tried to explain
to me that it wasn't enough. I responded that they only NEED 2 RMB and this was
more than enough. Turns out the 5 bill was akin to 5 CENTS--they don't use
coins here, which I actually like--one less thing to keep up with.

"The guy next to me at this cafe looks Western, but to me it sounded like he was
speaking a Chinese dialect. I listened more closely and realized it was FRENCH.
The nasal intonations are similar to some of the Chinese sounds. My heart leaps
each time I see a Westerner. I want to stop and speak with each one of them.
Last night after wandering the streets for 2 hours, I saw the first Westerner
since hitting Beijing. Hardly any one here speaks ANY English, so I was
desperate just to talk. I asked him if he spoke English, he said yes. I asked
where he was from and he said California! But he was not very friendly. I
think he thought I was coming on to him.

The street signs have pinyin (Chinese in Western alphabet) so that's pretty
easy, but most of the stores have names, etc only in Chinese characters, which
of course I can't read at all. Always try to find food that I can see before I
buy and where the price is clearly marked, since some try to charge Westerners
excessive amounts. NOT all-several people have turned down more money."

"Guess what the greeting gift was from my employer? A toothbrush! Guess what
they have in the hotel along with soap, etc. A toothbrush! I was told that until recently, the government told everyone that brushing was bad for your teeth, I suppose because they didn't have toothbrushes and wanted to make the people feel ok about that. Well, now they love toothbrushes. Big displays in the stores. Also in my employer's gift bad: a comb which is the type that black people used to wear in their hair (see photo).

Lots of people have dogs as pets here and some of them are not even on a leash.

Went to the Western/European section today and found American-style shopping and
products but even there, no one spoke good English.

Sat on a yard-high wall in front of a building and noticed a guy in a
police-type uniform slowly walking toward me. Then he put on his white gloves
and approached me and said something in Chinese, with a smile. I responded,
'English?' Apparently not, he repeated the same thing, still with a smile. I
realized that sitting on anything not inteneded as a seat is considered
disrespectful, so I stood up. He smiled and nodded his head.

Hope you all are well. Orientation tomorrow at work."

First day: May 22

"In Beijing now. I'm not in Kansas anymore! Already made a friend--Terre, another EF
teacher; she's a black woman from New York City and has lived in Japan,
Thailand, France, and used to be a model. (See the photo. The other woman is Jackie, a teacher from Ireland.) We're exploring the area around our hotel now. Only access to internet right now is this Western-style hotel (our hotel is NOT Western-style).

Cannot get on Facebook until I'm able to use my own PC--maybe a couple of weeks.

Weather is like Charlotte now--hot and humid. Pollution similar to Charlotte.
Have been on streets for hours and no one is staring! Also,not nearly as
crowded as everyone says. People exaggerate the differences. This will be a
fascinating experience."