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The Man in China Blog Archive
Ah, the joys of this job and this location on the planet. We love the job because we are being paid to do what we like to do best, which is research subjects and learn about things and then pass on what we've learned to the students. We love the location because when we do get a visitor, it is always somebody interesting, coming from someplace interesting, with insights and views of the world that are interesting. This past weekend our visitor was Doug Lowther, a friend of Ruth's since her high school days.
Since we now have three bikes, if you count my new san lun che (three wheeled vehicle), we all set off for dinner at a restaurant in the nearby village. GouGou's new buddy gave her a lift.
On the way I passed a young girl in a crowd of students. I said hello, introduced myself, asked a few questions, and before I knew it I had Feng Fei, 冯菲 whose English name is Sunny, joining us for dinner. Besides being 18 years old and cute as a button (as my dear old Granny would have said), Feng Fei is very smart. She's a freshman studying textile chemistry. She speaks excellent English, and her pu tong hua (Mandarin) is standard because she comes from a town near Beijing. So she got to practice her English on us, and I got to learn some Chinese from her. Win win all over the place.
Doug was in Shanghai on
business - he's a top executive in a computer software company that
sells security and encryption to television companies. When he
isn't on the road, which is about fifty percent of the year, he
now lives in Amsterdam, and I wish I had a tape of his description
of life and politics in the Netherlands. Fascinating stuff。
With May first coming at us, we have a week off, starting next Tuesday. Our friends Thomas and Marina will be visiting us from Weihai. Marina is a vivacious Russian and Thomas is a good ol' boy from the deep south of the Untied States. So we have more great conversations to look forward to.
April 19, 2007
Last night George, 恺宁 朱, brought his trophy to the Special Class so that I could get a picture.
Then I wasn't happy with the
picture so he came back to our apartment after class so that Ruth could
take another. Don't take the green hair too seriously. The colour
washes out with one shampooing and it's gone already. Not my
normal professorial look, but a bit of fun for the Special Class
April 16, 2007 George takes first place
George, one of the students in my Special Class for non-English majors, called me this evening with the news that he had taken first place in the English speech contest. Could he come over to thank me in person and show me his trophy? Since I helped him tweak up his speech and rehearse for this event, I'm almost as proud as I would be if I'd won the trophy myself. A few minutes later he was at the door. The handsome little statuette is packaged in a traditional red Chinese box, tied with a red ribbon. Ruth and I admired it, and congratulated George on his achievement. To come in first out of a hundred and thirty contestants is no small feat. Congratulations again, George. I wish I'd thought to take a picture.
We're back from the weekend outing to Yangzhou and Jiangyin. A very enjoyable weekend indeed, with visits to some truly beautiful parks, delicious food and a night in a four star hotel. Ruth will be posting pictures soon, I'm sure. When I think back to my feelings before I came to China, the trepidation with which I approached this whole adventure, it all seems truly laughable now. But maybe I've just lucked into a good situation here at Jiang Nan Da Xue (Southern Yangtze University). They do treat me well.
April 12, 2007 the stuff going on here
Why should I do all the writing for this blog when Ruth is writing the same information into her emails home. Here's Ruth's email to her mom. All I'm going to say is "me too".
Yesterday our friend Wang Lei, whose English name is Stones, showed up at our door all the way from Weihai via Shanghai, much to our amazement. I was expecting her, but expecting her to call first so that I could go to meet her at the train station. Due to a copying error taking down our phone number, calling didn't work, so she simply tracked us down, starting by knowing only our names and the university where we work. Clever woman.
We took GouGou for a walk to show Stones around the campus, and paid a visit to the bike store where GouGou is known as FeiFei, her original name. There we found my new tricycle truck waiting for me.
This thing is unbelievably basic and rough around the edges, but it did carry Ruth, Stones, and GouGou, with me peddling, back to our apartment building. I figure that's upwards of a 400 pound payload. I'm about to take it out on a shopping excursion into the village, just to see how it rides without all the weight. In any event, it really is overkill to get my video gear to class, but also fun. Probably takes my visibility up one more notch, like I needed that.
April 6, 2007 The English Corner
For those of you reading this in the familiar surroundings of Canada, America, England, New Zealand or Australia, but wondering what it would be like to work in China, just imagine walking into a room full of smiling people who all break into applause as you enter. Back home this might happen once or twice in a lifetime, on special occasions like just after you win the contract that saves the company, or at your retirement dinner. Here it can happen four times on a weekend.
We have four "English Corners" this weekend, two yesterday, one today, and one tomorrow. These are gatherings of between twenty and a hundred students who want to practice their English. The first English Corner, Friday afternoon, was held at Lomo, a little coffee shop on campus, and was just a casual gathering of a dozen or so with nothing really organized. We simply sat with the students, from all different departments, and talked about anything they wanted to talk about. The one yesterday evening was held in a classroom and more organized, with probably a hundred students in attendance. Each of the attending foreign teachers, five of us, gave a little speech about our life in China. This was followed by a guess the number game, with punishment for the "winner" being that he or she had to sit on a balloon until it popped. Great fun. The organizers gave each speaker a little present. And the students treated us like visiting movie stars.
Ruth and I try to attend as many English Corners as possible. Some of the questions get a little repetitious after a while (How long have you been in China? What do you think of the Chinese people?), but the spirit with which the students greet us, and their obvious appreciation, is truly heart warming.
I tell the students that they should be proud of their achievement in learning English. Most of them have never had more than fleeting contact with native speakers, yet their pronunciation is good, they are understandable, and they have a good working vocabulary.
For us, the biggest frustration of this country is that it feels like EVERYBODY can speak quite a bit of English. Of course this isn't true, but it is true that we can get along just fine without a single word of Chinese. So it is very hard to learn to speak Chinese, or even to hear much Chinese spoken. Everybody wants to practice speaking English. We need a Chinese Corner. I mentioned this to a student at the English Corner yesterday, and he said, "Just step outside."
April 6, 2007 The Tricycle
I've placed my order for a tricycle-truck. Standard model, just like the one in this picture. We've been unable to find a retail outlet for these things, and have spent a pile of money on cab fair looking. Time to simplify the procedure. The man at the campus bike store (the guy who gave us our dog) accepted a 100 RMB ($12.94 U.S.) deposit and tells me he will have one for me next week. The price will be as much as 600 RMB ($77.67 U.S.) but maybe a bit less. So next week I will have my Chinese video production vehicle and will be able to get my gear to class without overloading my two wheeler. I'm strangely excited by this development. Will post pictures when the vehicle arrives.
April 1, 2007 and No Fooling
China is still a smoking country. It reminds me of the fifties and sixties in Canada, when I used to smoke in elevators and help turn the air blue at National Executive Board meetings of the Director's Guild. The anti-smoking thing doesn't seem to have caught on here yet. Not so much as a No Smoking section in any restaurant we've encountered. The best we can usually hope for is a seat near the heater or air conditioner, providing less smoky air, or an open doorway. After dinner it is the custom for all the men at the table, usually the table right next to us, to light up. Now I know that there is nobody less tolerant of sin than a reformed sinner, but sitting next to a big round table where a dozen beer drinking smokers are all puffing away and talking in loud voices is not conducive to the enjoyment of a meal.
When I first came to China I adopted the humble attitude that I think all visitors to a country should have: I was very respectful of the Chinese way of doing things, and ready to tolerate any customs I encountered. Maybe I've started to feel like this is home, because that attitude has changed. I now politely ask smokers if they will butt out. In my very bad Chinese I can say, "Excuse me. This is a very small restaurant. Please don't smoke here." The Chinese are so polite. Every time I have done this, I've had immediate apologies and a whole table of doused cigarettes. If they resent the intrusion of the wai guo ren (literally "outside country person", foreigner) they are careful to hide their annoyance. If they are drinkers, I buy them beer.
Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if ALL the people who profit from cigarette sales would suddenly get a conscience and say, hey, I don't need money badly enough to kill for it. I'm talking about all the convenience store managers, the truck drivers, the cardboard box manufacturers, the stock holders, the tobacco growers, all the thousands of people in the supply chain from the tobacco fields to the lips of the end user, puffing away on the "cancer stick". Wouldn't it be a day to celebrate if all these people would say no, I won't do it. I won't be a part of this. Most of them would only be giving up a tiny fraction of their income, not the whole thing. Most of them would never miss the money.
I watched my father trying to quit when I was a small child, again when I was in my teens, yet again when I was in my twenties. I lost track of the number of times he tried to escape from the addiction. He wasn't successful until 1985 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and told he had just a few months to live. I suppose you could say that it was his choice to smoke. And I can say the same thing to all those people in that long supply chain. It's your choice to do this. You don't have to contribute to the deaths of thousands of people each year.
It's strange to find myself posting something so serious on April Fools Day. But somehow it seems appropriate. What fools we all are to let this happen, and to let it continue.
March 31, 2007 Every day an Adventure
Occasionally I have a lot of video gear to take to class. It's a bit of a load for a bicycle so I'm interested in buying one of the ubiquitous pedal powered tricycle trucks I see around here. They are used for deliveries, emptying garbage, carrying street sweepers, moving apartments, and moving anything else you can imagine using a truck to carry. Often they seem to be carrying impossible loads. Some of them are battery powered.
We've made a couple of excursions to try to find a source for these things but so far without success. I have learned that they can be purchased new for about 300 RMB, which is roughly $38.78 U.S. so I'm definitely a buyer once I find a place where I can buy.
Today under threatening skies we went off on our bikes to Da Run Fa, the nearest super market. On the way we passed a man on one of these machines. He had a large floor sander machine in the truck bed, but still seemed to be maintaining quite a pace. We passed him going up over the Li Hu bridge, but we had to wait for the light on the other side and he caught up with us. Then he seemed to be racing us. We made eye contact, both of us grinning and waving. I motioned him to stop, climbed off my bike, and offered it to him, indicating that I would like to ride his machine. So the next thing I know I'm peddling along, quite impressed with how easy it was to get the thing going. It's very small for me, but still workable.
Suddenly a bus pulled out of the side street in front of me, and I realized that the trike has a hand brake that is a single lever on the frame. I had no idea which way to pull the lever to make it stop. Resorting to the obvious alternative, I put both feet down and, after only a few yards of skidding along Flintstones style, managed to stop the machine just before the side of the bus would have stopped it.
Ruth commented that being in China is like being a kid again. We foreigners get away with all kinds of silliness, and have opportunities for fun that the locals wouldn't have. Actually, many things about this experience remind me of being a child, starting with learning to talk, read, write, and count. I've been in the country for two and a half years now. I guess, as a two and a half year old child I'm not doing too badly, given that many children don't say their first word until they are that age or older.
March 25, 2007 Double Language Puns, 88 and 3Q
I love the dual language puns that are becoming popular with the Chinese youth. The Chinese for eight is ba, so 88 becomes ba ba, which sounds like bye bye. A Chinese student might close off a mobile phone text message with 88. Ba ba. Bye bye.
The Chinese for 3 is san. So 3Q becomes "san Q" = thank you. There's something delightful about a pun that only works if you know and use two languages.
3Q for checking out my blog. 88
March 24, 2007 a Warning about Living in China
don't misunderstand me. I like living in China and I feel very safe
here. It is not the dangerous country many westerners imagine it to
be. At least not in my experience as a sheltered "foreign expert".
But it does have one quality that is worth some attention - an obvious
lack of inspection, regulation and enforcement of such things as building
codes, electrical codes, and consumer goods.
The other day I set a hot pot down on this oven mitt. When I picked it up again I was surprised to find that the mitt had melted onto the bottom of the pot. That should have been warning enough, and would have been if I was paying attention. But I assumed that it was just the outer covering that was meltable, not the inner insulation.
and more consumer items are manufactured in China and exported to the
west, maybe it would be a good idea for you to check the oven mitts
in your own kitchen. I'm not sure whether government inspection of
such items is mandatory in the west, or whether that is just another
of my fantasies. But coming to China has given me a whole new
appreciation of building codes, electrical and plumbing codes, and
lawsuits that punish businesses that cause pain and suffering. Class
action torts do seem to serve a purpose, and aren't just
frivolous claims (check
out the guy suing Starbucks for causing damage to his penis!) made by
The lack of consumer testing here is actually quite amazing. This keychain fingernail clipper was a gift from a Chinese friend, a birthday present last year. It's sleek and attractive, with the Chinese five star logo inlaid into the cover.
packaged. Elegant. Really fine looking in fact. The only
problem with it is that it will not cut a fingernail. Not at all.
Just think of it - designed, design approved, prototype made,
prototype approved, manufactured, packaged, inspected,
shipped, distributed, and sold - and it absolutely
doesn't work at all. It's like a miracle of modern production and
Those Pushy Foreigners:
back from dinner this evening we were stopped at the North gate by the
sharply dressed guards. And nice, polite, young gentlemen they
do seem to be. But for some reason they have taken to refusing entry
to taxis, and want us to go to the main gate, which is another
5RMB worth of ride away. The first time they did this, just
after Spring Break, I was the polite foreigner and went along with
the idea. But since then I have seen all kinds of taxis and cars
being admitted. So the last two times through, I have climbed
out of the taxi, smiled politely at the guards, and walked in
front of the taxi, motioning him forward, then climbed back in
for the short ride to our apartment.
March 21, 2007 The Special Class
Keeping a blog is turning out to be a difficult habit to acquire. Here it is ten days since my last entry already. It's not that there hasn't been at least SOMETHING to write about every day. Time is flying past. Tempus fugit. (I had the fun of explaining this term in class this morning, and telling the students to watch for it on the face of grandfather clocks.) Already we are three weeks into the term. Just let me catch my breath here.
I have five different subjects
this semester. Two of them are relatively easy to prepare,
Western Culture because I have taught it for several terms, have
extensive PowerPoint ready to go, and only need to simplify it and
slow it down a bit for Freshmen students, Business English
because there is a textbook and teacher's book that give me course
material to follow. A third course, Speaking and Listening,
is dead easy to prepare because Ruth is teaching the same course and does
excellent PowerPoint preparation for me to use, tested in three of
her classes before my class time. That leaves me preparing for two
forty-five minute classes of something called Western Communication and
Etiquette, a class for which I have no textbook, no
syllabus, and no lesson plans. Nothing but the course title.
In one way this is wonderful - I can take the course wherever I want to
take it, which means at the moment that it's getting a fusion of
"How to Win Friends and Influence People", "The Power of Now", "The
Four Agreements", personal development stuff I've had over the years
like "Logo Dynamics" and "The Pursuit of Excellence", and anything I
can find on the Internet pertaining to customs and conduct - and in
another way it is not quite so wonderful. Preparing an hour and a
half of interesting and dynamic lecture each week is, to put it
mildly, soaking up my "free" time.
Last Wednesday evening we had the first session of the Special Class. This class is composed of twenty-one students who are non-English majors. They were interviewed beforehand and competed successfully for a position in the class against an equal number of other applicants. The class is not required. They are only taking the class because they have a passion for English. It's exciting to have a class that I can do whatever I want to do with, composed of students who are enthusiastic, motivated and already very accomplished with the language.
We began the first class with a reading of "The Highwayman", and a line by line explanation. My theory was that the Chinese students would love that poem because they seem to have a great fondness for tragic love stories. I'm not sure it had quite the impact I was hoping for, but at least I've had no complaints. The other thing the students seem to have a passion for is personal development concepts, so tonight's poem will be Rudyard Kipling's "If", a poem which I memorized many years ago. (anybody who has the nerve to rhyme "in you" with "sinew" is a POET in my estimation). I've started to videotape all of the students in the Special Class giving a short introduction to themselves. Professor Wu, who came up with the idea for the Special Class, wants me to give the students a lot of assignments, projects to do, topics to research and discuss, and presentations to prepare. What a treat it is to have this kind of class to tackle.
So far the students are expressing great enthusiasm. Their first assignment, last week, was to send me an email telling me what they wanted to have happen in the class. Here's a fairly typical sample:
I'm glad to send the E-mail to you. I'm Benita. I've been learning English for years, but your class has open the gate of a new world for me. In fact, I'm feeling excited to listen to your beautiful English. It’s the first time I send an E-mail as the homework (if I can call it a homework).
I want a relaxed, happy class. I think we can do something different from the tradition Chinese class. You have read a wonderful poem for us that time, that’s one of the “different things”. I want more and more.
Can you sing a song? I think your voice is wonderful!! Can you teach us some Engish songs? Then we can sing together, I thing it must be interesting. Futhermore, I think we can have a chat corner. You give us a theme, or even a beginning of a story, then we can continue it freely. We can make a story of our own, or just say the things we want to say. In this way we can learn to express ourselves. We can also read a poem, listen to a song, or even a movie, then we can talk something about it one by one.
Let’s do some games!! Such as quiz or riddle. I have seen such a game on TV. You may describe a thing in Engish, then we guess the word by your discription. We can have a time limit so it can become a competetion.
David, there is a thing I think we all want you to do. Please talk more about yourself, your experience. Tell us something about the countries that we have never been to, something about the people we have never seen. Just like open a corner called “David’Travel Day” ~~~As you have said, just listen to your words can be a lot of help for us. So I want to listen more.
I don’t know how long you have planed to stay in our university, but I hope we can stay with you for a long long happy time^^~~~
Now, for a guy who has always craved attention, doesn't this sound like a good gig for me? A captive audience just begging me to show off, and no competition for the spotlight? So, Benita, you asked for it. I spent many hours of my Spring holiday learning Riverboat Rendezvous, a ragtime guitar piece from a Tim Williams instructional CD. I've put a PowerPoint presentation together to go with it, giving the words and explanatory (in some cases, merely whimsical in others) images. This evening I get to test it out.
March 11, 2007 shopping for a boat
I've been toying with the idea of getting a little boat for paddling around on the canals which are all over this area, including the landscape of this university. Yesterday we went off looking at boats. HanHan, her husband Gary, Ruth, GouGou and I called up our favourite van driver, Xiao Chen, who drove us through the little villages and around to the shore of Tai Hu. There, GouGou discovered that the green algae scum over black mud at the lake edge wasn't really solid ground. She had to be tossed into the lake twice before we could let her back into the van. Aside from a few very funky old workboats and some scenery, there wasn't much of interest at the lakeshore. Xiao Chen got on the phone to a friend and we were off to find a boat builder. After wandering through the back streets of the villages around our campus, we ended up as guests on a working canal barge.
I have a friend in England, Lord Adrian Stott actually, who
lives on a canal barge, which makes me look at these with a certain
interest. I could buy a fully functional canal barge here for 20,000 yuan
(about $2580 U.S.) used or 40,000 yuan (about $5,060 U.S.) brand spanking
new. I'm sure another 10,000 yuan (about $1290 U.S.) worth of modification
would make one into a comfortable, if not luxurious, houseboat. What a
delightful way to wander around this part of China that would be.
But that's too big a project to take on just yet. If I need a boat
at all, I need something a bit smaller. In the meantime,
the hospitable Captain Ding gave me his business card. Maybe when
the weather warms up we can ride with him while he delivers sacks of
mortar to building sites along the canal. "If you like boats, we'll
get along fine." he told me.
March 10, 2007, term underway and construction behind us.
Incredible. My intentions was to do this blogging thing close to daily, and here it is twelve days since my last entry. Must try harder. Must try harder.
This is Saturday Morning in Wuxi and I awoke to the sound of construction from the field behind our apartment. They are building a new teachers' apartment building. The thing that caught my attention as I watched from our kitchen window was that everybody is wearing a hard hat. Just what you would expect of a Western construction site, but a bit of a surprise to me here in China, where nobody wears a bike helmet, six people and a pig will ride one motorcycle, everybody seems to ignore traffic regulations, and there are no obvious signs of building codes or standards. I've seen welders at work with no eye protection. I've seen a sidewalk craftsman working with an angle grinder while a toddler played with the metal shards a couple of feet from his work. So hardhats in the construction site took me a bit by surprise. There are three colours of hard hat there - white, orange, and a darker orange approaching red. I think the white hats are probably worn by management and visitors, just like in the West. This is one more indication that China is changing, adopting safety standards and joining the modern world in all things. I observe it with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I hate the idea that China is becoming just like anyplace else on the planet, succumbing to what has been called "the malling of America" and adopting all the modern building materials and architectural styles that you see in any developed country. On the other hand, it's exciting to see the changes. It's great to see China adopting the good things from my world. I just hope, in vain I suspect, that China can avoid adopting the not so good things, like the private automobile.
I've now finished my first week of the Spring term at Jiangnan Daxue (Southern Yangtze University). Amazing how time flies when you are having fun. I have 16 hours on my schedule at the moment, two more than my contract allows. Ruth also had sixteen hours, and we were negotiating for additional compensation when her schedule was revised, yesterday, and she is now down to twelve hours. This means that she can take one of my courses, putting us both at 14 hours, and there'll be no additional money for me either, which is just fine by me. Working 14 hours a week sound like a loafer's dream, but not when you consider that one of my courses has a title - Western Communication and Etiquette - and nothing else. No text book. No course description or syllabus. Not even a class list until I showed up and counted heads (83 students on the list at the moment). So whatever content the course has is totally up to me, and with 83 students it more or less has to be a lecture course. Preparing two forty-five minute lectures each week takes a certain amount of time, especially since I like to work with PowerPoint, add pictures, and generally try to make whatever I say interesting.
In addition, I must prepare two classes a week for my Special Class - non-English majors who competed for one of only twenty positions in a class to improve their English and presentation skills. This class will be easier to prepare, because it isn't all lecturing. But I will still have to dream up and organize activities and assignments and make sure I am on top of things. I've promised myself that this class will be really special, and will provide real value to the students who were interested enough to sign up for it. It's also a pet idea of the Deputy Dean, Professor Wu, and I would hate to disappoint him. So between those two classes I can fill a lot of preparation hours.
Then there is my Western Culture class, a survey course on Great Britain and Australia covering topography, demographics, history, economics, legal systems, political systems, educational systems, holidays and festivals, media, sports and entertainment, and anything else that fits. This is my fourth semester teaching this course, so I have a lot of PowerPoint lectures prepared. But this time I am teaching it to Freshmen, so I will have to simplify it a lot, slow it down, and make sure that the vocabulary I use is accessible. That will add at least an hour or two per week to my prep load. Fourteen actual teaching hours a week starts to sound like a lot.
My first classes this past week seemed to go well. I'm expecting a few dropouts once students realize how much work these courses will involve, since Western Culture and Western Communications and Etiquette are both optional for the students. I'll be surprised if my Western Culture course doesn't lose a few students. It had 142 students, nearly the entire Freshmen roster, show up for the first class. (Very flattering to have such a turnout for an optional course. I wish I knew whether I should be flattered or not. It's always so hard to get a grip on reality here. This large turnout may have nothing at all to do with the fact that I am teaching the course.) The assigned classroom would only hold two thirds of this number, so when I arrived there were students in the hallway complaining that they couldn't get seats. Fortunately, a much larger lecture theatre was empty a few doors away and I was able to do an emergency class change, but four of the students had already given up and gone elsewhere by that time.
All of the above may make Chinese university administration seem a bit haphazard, and that's how we perceive it most of the time. But really it is just a matter of style. Things get done. Classes do get organized. Learning is accomplished. I've always liked working in a rather loose organizational way, dancing with the flow of events. When I worked as a film director, I always felt that too much advance planning could really damage the film, because I could get my heart set on things that turned out to be absolutely impossible under the circumstances of budget and shooting, and waste all my shooting time on lost causes. Much better to be in the moment, and to work with reality as it unfolded. Friends who were part of it might remember the day wasted trying to wrangle dry ice fog in an antique store while shooting "Passion", something that turned out to be totally beyond our abilities without a ten-man special effects crew and much more equipment. Instead of rolling poetically down the stairs like a waterfall, the fog disappeared behind the open stairs after the top step, an unforeseen and unfixable circumstance. But now I am rambling. Let's get back to present day, and China.
To wrap up the blog for today, here is a charming example of the consideration and courtesy with which students treat us here:
Hi, David, no time no see. I was very happy to see you this morning in the teaching building. But I was really embarrassed after I said "hello" to you because I hadn't thought out what to say next. What I could do was only to smile. I meant to say "it is a pity you don't teach us this semester" but what would Ruth have felt if I had said so? She teaches us this semester. If she were Chinese, I'm sure she would have been unhappy if I had said so. Perhaps it is Chinese customer. I wonder whether it is the same in Canada.
Later on I realised I could have talked about the weather and the winter holiday or even introduced my boyfriend, the boy standing beside me, to you. I feel I was a little silly at that time. Or does it mean I my oral English is declining?
Did you have a good holiday? Could you tell me how you spent the days in Spring Festival?
Recently, I'm very fond of Chinese tea, especially Pu'er tea and Wulong tea. I'm thinking about learning the art of tea. It is a Chinese tradition. Are you interested in Chinese tea? We can share some ideas about tea if you're interested in.
Now, isn't that sweet? I'm constantly impressed with the concern that Chinese people show for the feelings of others. Oh heck, I might as well post my reply to her. Just so you all know:
February 28, 2007 Learning Chinese Characters:
In Kunming I bought a book of
flash cards as part of my continuing effort to learn Chinese characters.
The cards are perforated so you can take them out of the book a page at a
time. I'm writing out each character in a special exercise book that has
pages with a grid pattern on them. So each character gets written 13
times, just to start with.
An Inconvenient Truth:
For years the Citroen automobile has been unavailable in North America because the French won't meet emission standards. I always assumed that America set the lead for exhaust emissions. This evening we watched "An Inconvenient Truth", the movie about Al Gore's campaign to increase awareness of global warming. The movie just won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and it is something you must see. One of the things it mentioned that I find amazing is that the U.S. car emission standards now are below those of China, which means that the U.S. automakers can't sell their cars into China. I'm so used to thinking of the U.S. as the centre of the car industry, the world leader, and thinking about China as the backward country with outdated technology that I find this a real head shaker. It's hard to understand how the proud Americans can accept a second place position on this issue, but in fact they aren't even in second place. More like third or fourth place. Can we expect a flurry of public outrage when this fact becomes known to the American people, as it will now that this movie is being seen?
February 27, 2007 and we're back in Wuxi:
Happy Birthday to my wonderful and gorgeous daughter, Reba. I love you, sweetie.
After a wonderful Spring vacation in Kunming we're home to our apartment on the campus of Jiang Nan Da Xue (Southern Yangtze University, S.Y.U.)
Before I go into details of our
holiday and travel in China, I must say a few words about the
Kunming College of Eastern Language
where we had a month of Chinese lessons, four hours a day for five
days a week, Chen Laoshi in the morning and Shang Laoshi in the
afternoon for a class of two, Ruth and me. I can't speak too highly of the
way we were treated by the school. The staff is beyond wonderful.
Jackie, a very personable young man, met us at the airport and
the school paid for the ride into town. Jenny, the charming
young woman who runs the office, now feels like a good friend. The
principal was always welcoming us with a smile when we arrived for
classes. In all, the school created a family atmosphere and
did everything imaginable to make us feel welcome and comfortable.
To top it off, when we expressed worries about getting our dog
through the airport security without having her sent through the x-ray
machine, Chen Laoshi volunteered to come to the airport with us on
our departure. Without his help I don't think we would have got Guo
Gou home with us, and we probably would still be sitting in a hotel in
Kunming trying to figure out how to satisfy the airline requirements for
dog transportation. In spite of the fact that he would have to pay
for his own transportation back into the city, he absolutely refused
to take any money from us for his help. Another example of the
generosity of the Chinese, and the quality of teachers at the
You can contact the school by sending an email to Jackie: email@example.com
And this is all I have time for today. More about Kunming, Dali, and our vacation soon, but the short version is that Kunming is the most beautiful city in China. Clear blue skies. Great weather. Fascinating area, with diverse minority cultures and interesting history. Old Dali was especially interesting, spotlessly clean and with the best variety of restaurants we've found in China.
January 20, 2007, the Writing Class exam:
January 15, 2007, Movie Course Essay results are in...
And they are a bit discouraging. Of 141 essays, 81 were blatant and shameless cut and paste jobs straight off the Internet. They get a mark of C minus. Of the remaining 60, I just know that about ten were also plagiarism, but I can't find the source. So they get an undeserved A. There were three or four that had small cut and paste sections interspersed with original material. They get a B minus, because the students don't know any better. That leaves about 45 that were truly original, and some of these are very good indeed. So they get an A or an A plus.
If I teach movie appreciation next semester, my first class will be all about plagiarism and how to cite sources.
Ruth and I will fly to Kunming on January 23rd for a month of Chinese lessons in the City of Eternal Spring. We're taking the dog. I'm trying to figure out which musical instruments to take. Ruth says the pipa is too heavy. I'm not playing the violin much since I fell off my bike and injured my right shoulder. The guitars? The mandolin? the Er hu? Zen ma ban? Zen ma ban?
January 13, 2007, Shanghai for a weekend, and marking my Movie Course essays.
Since arriving in Wuxi which is only an hour and a half by train from Shanghai, back in August we've been promising ourselves a trip to the big glittering famous city. Last weekend we finally made it. We tried to buy train tickets on campus but the lineup at the ticket office defeated us. My student friend, Wang Ru Long, was up at five in the morning and stood in line until two in the afternoon to get his tickets home for Spring Festival. Too much for me. So on the advice of others who have gone before us, we took a chance that tickets would be available at the Wuxi train station on Saturday morning. Even if we had to stand for the whole trip, it would be bearable for an hour and a half. Sure enough it was standing room only on the train.
In the waiting room a family was sitting with their son who looked to be maybe four or five years old. A "little emperor", obviously, with the whole family doting on him. I don't happen to think that this is as destructive to the child as most Chinese seem to believe, and this family was simply radiating love for the boy and for each other. Working class people, by the looks of them. Salt of the earth. A bit funky, but definitely a family. Soon the boy and I had eye contact and he was doing the thing all kids do with strangers, making faces and playing for attention. I called him to me and gave him a Canada pin, which by the way is the greatest PR gimmick our government has ever come up with, available to everybody in quantity for free. Well, that was it. We were adopted. On the way to the train, the mother made sure we were going in the right direction, and heading for the right car. On the car, the father insisted that I sit while he stood. For a while, Ruth rode on my knee, but at the first stop, Suzhou, some seats came available. The grandmother moved to a different seat and insisted that Ruth take hers. Once again, the friendliness and generosity of the Chinese people was overwhelming.
In Shanghai we stayed at the Astor House, where Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, and Bertrand Russell stayed when they were in Shanhai. A grand old hotel, a mere ten minute walk from The Bund, which is the river side stroll, and Nanjing Lu, the famous shopping street. A comfortable room on the sixth floor set us back 680 yuan ( $101.95 Canadian or $87.21 U.S. ), expensive for China but cheap for an international big city. This turned out to be less than we paid for our seats at the circus that evening.
One of my missions for the trip to Shanghai was to find and purchase a slider and finger picks for Ruth's guitar, so that I could stop using the vacuum cleaner attachment as a slider and finally get into the instructional DVD of Tim Williams slide guitar that I bought for Ruth in Nanaimo last summer. The hotel directed us to a music store, which had everything but what I wanted. The store owner directed us to Jingling Lu, where there is a long strip of music stores, with everything from pianos and drums to steel bodied guitars, er hu, pipas, and guzhong. I found the slider and picks in the second store we visited.
The circus is a nightly event in its own venue. It's an obvious Cirque de Soliel clone, though not quite as arty. Highlight of the show for us was a young man on a rollie board, itself on a wooden spoon/boat set piece that didn't seem all that stable, who balanced on one foot while placing bowls on his ankle, then flipping them into the air and catching them on top of his head. One bowl was impressive enough, but when he got up to four bowls at a time it strained credulity. Another crowd pleaser was the squirrel cage with eight roaring motorcycles chasing each other around in it at the same time, headlights blazing through the exhaust fumes. We could just imagine what an engine missing would do to the performers. Of course the Chinese contortionists and acrobats were simply amazing as well. So it was an hour and a half of solid entertainment, and money well spent.
Sunday in Shanghai I returned to the first music store and bought a pipa, which is a traditional Chinese lute type instrument. We heard one of these play "Red River Valley" and "Moscow Nights" while waiting for a river cruise in Suzhou back in October, and I decided back then that I had to learn to play one. Then it was on to the the strip of music stores on JingLing Lu to pick up the fluorescent green electric violin I'd seen and almost purchased the day before. After lunch we walked the freezing Bund to buy river cruise tickets. A delightful three hour cruise on the Huang Pu river, duck for dinner, and we were back on the train for Wuxi.
The Movie Course Essay fiasco:
If you read the post below this one, you'll get an introduction to the plagiarism problem at Chinese universities. For my Movie Appreciation Class, I asked all of my students to write a short essay about any subject to do with the class that they wanted - comparing movies, talking about their favorite film, or talking about the class in general. Posted below this is a submission from Zhang Mei with a request for a pre-read. I gave her a good beating for submitting plagiarism, she thanked me and submitted original work.
Yesterday morning I picked up the remaining student essays, which were delivered to the classroom by the class monitors. I have one hundred and forty-seven students in that class, so it's a stack of essays. So far I have looked at 91 of them. Of these, only 29 seem to be original writing by the students. The remaining 62 are obvious and blatant cut and paste jobs straight off the IMDB reviews or DVD user comments.
Zen ma ban? Zen ma ban?
What to do? What to do? Well, every cut and paste ripoff
paper is getting a C minus mark, the lowest I can give students
without actually failing them. In any north American university
they'd be expelled and blacklisted for a year, but this is China.
Obviously I didn't give them adequate warning, or instruction,
and apparently they have never been taught how to correctly attribute a
source, even though they are graduating English majors.
Here's a letter from one of my students in response to this policy:
Subject line: I want to rewrite my paper on "Searching for Bobby Fischer"
To which I replied:
To be fair to everybody, I cannot accept your second review. You
Ah hah. A shot across the bow? Does this mean that the students will trash my course and my teaching in response to a hardass stance. After sleeping on all of this, I woke up with a feeling almost of dread. Was I making a terrible cultural mistake, causing problems where a Chinese teacher would just turn a blind eye. Here's one last letter from a student:
Thanks a lot for your reply.
I ran this whole situation past
Jin Bo, our administration liaison. He took it to Linda, the
head of the English department, who said go with the C minus marks.
No doubt this will not be the end of this issue. Sigh.
January 3, 2007. New Year's Resolution - do something with your website or scrap it.
I've been sending sporadic reports on my life and work, but nothing has been posted to the Internet until now. Every once in a while something lands in my inbox that makes me feel so good that I want to share it with the world. The email message below is such a something. It inspired me to actually start posting interesting things to this website. I shall try to be conscientious about this, and actually update this site on a regular basis from this day hence...
I just finished the essay for movie appreciation class. Actually, in the first year, we had a class called Media English which is somehow similar to yours. We also watched some English moives. So I remember when we saw you for the first class in September last year, we just thought ,"Woo, the school hires a foreign teacher to play movies for us. " However, the movies you selected are so special to us. And I have learned a lot of knowlege about real movies. You make a difference. You was not only playing the movie, but teaching the movie. When I took Media English Class, I skipped so many "Harry Potter"s or "Princess' Diary"s which I had watched in high school, I guess that was the reason I got a D for my essay. But the teacher said it was because my view was unacceptable, and she said sorry for destorying my straight As. That is my painful past about movies, full of sound and fury. Just kidding, with tears.
Well, this time, I behave myself. Since I finished my essay far before the deadline, could I have your comments in advance? You'd like to do me favour, right? Thank you for reading it and I will modify it if necessary.
Zhang Mei (not her real name)
Now isn't that a great thing to be able to post to start the new year, and the blog. Makes it all worthwhile somehow.
Except I read her essay. And here is my response to it:
Dear Zhang Mei
I don't know whether you can really appreciate how much I wanted to give you an A plus mark for your essay after reading your email message. It means so very much to me to hear from one of my students that I make a difference.
In fact, I was going to ask your permission to post your message and essay on my website. But whenever I get anything from a student, I always check it for plagiarism. Unfortunately, a random sentence selected from your essay, a sentence which did not include the title of the movie, plugged into Google yielded the result below. It's obviously a cut and paste directly, word for word, from a review that is up on the Internet.
Can you imagine how embarrassing this would be for both of us if I had posted your essay on my website as an example of my students' work? It might go unnoticed. But if it were discovered by one of the writers of the reviews you copied, I would look very foolish and you would look like a thief.
Normally under these circumstances I would give my student a zero for the course. In a North American university, the student would be expelled, and his or her name would go on a list which would prevent registration at any other university for a year. But since you asked me to give you a pre-read, and haven't actually submitted this paper, I won't do that. What I must do is ask you to go through your paper and put anything that isn't your own words in quotes and footnote the source. This may be difficult for you to do now, since you looked at a number of reviews and, I assume, chose sentences from several of them. If in doubt, think about what the sentence says and then put it aside before re-writing it in your own words.
Zhang Mei, I know you didn't do this on purpose. You probably just don't understand the difference between paraphrasing and plagiarizing. I'm going to send you a PowerPoint presentation that should make it very clear.
Finally, let me say that I was really moved by your email message. I'm happy to have a student like you, and very pleased with your work. So let's get our relationship back on track.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Here's Zhang Mei's response:
I am very glad to receive your reply so soon. Do you know why i asked for a pre-read？Because we used to write essays on movies we watched, I always got pretty low score as I told you, and my teacher said my views were not acceptable. And some other students just got high marks by downloading the acceptable passages from the imdb written by native speakers. I don't mean to bring any trouble to any student, but I feel the teacher was so unfair. And this time, I tried that, looking at a number of reviews and, choosing sentences from several of them, and I sent it to you in advance, if you had said ok, I would have just let it be, typed and submitted it.
You really make a difference.
In fact, my view about American History X is on immigrants. You know, my aunt married an America-born Chinese, and she and her family are living in America. But I am afarid that what I wrote will be an another unacceptable view. I am a bit confused. Anyway, now I send you the original version I wrote which my roomate said it should need huge modification with the references on line. I am so happy that now you can read it.