Chinese Word of the Day: 毕业
(bi4 ye4 ) graduate
I had to make up this limerick because all the examples I could remember involve unusual sexual positions or genitalia. “Limerick”, rather improbably, was one of the words on the students’ vocabulary list.
Our last half term of teaching in China and we’ve been teaching grammar. This is stuff our students have been studying since primary school, so it isn’t much of a challenge for them. For me the challenge is teaching something that is absolutely useless in the real world. Unless one is going to be a teacher of grammar, I can think of no reason why anybody would need to know that a gerund is a verb that has been turned into a noun by adding -ing. Yes, I can understand that such a word is used as a noun, but why on earth would anybody need to know the name for it, and be able to identify it as opposed to, say, an infinitive.
So that’s my first complaint. The material seems to have been invented by an anal retentive academic with a fetish for classification and naming beyond what has any real value. Seriously. You people out there in the real world; Do you use the word “gerund” in your daily conversation? Do you know what that word means? Do you care what that word means? But that’s only the first complaint. My main problem is that prescriptive grammar tries to tell people how the language should be used, but nobody follows the rules. Now everybody says “Who are you going with?” not “Whom are you going with?” or more elegantly ‘With whom are you going?” To use the latter constructions would mark one as a pompous pedant and certainly set one apart from native speakers of English.
But that’s not the worst of it with this course. Not only does no normal person obey the prescribed rules of grammar, even the person writing the book couldn’t figure out the rules and follow them. An infinitive was clearly explained as a verb that could be used as a noun when combined with “to” as in the sentence: “To swim is my greatest joy.” but the examples given include sentences like “To most people he appeared to be normal.”, in which “to” is a preposition and “to most people” is a prepositional phrase, definitely NOT an infinitive.
Then there’s the book’s confusion about clauses and phrases. A clause supposedly differs from a phrase in that the former has a subject and predicate. So in the sentence, “O’Henry, an American author, was known for his surprise endings.” the words “an American author” form an appositive phrase, not a subordinate clause. Yet there it is in the examples, as an example of a subordinate clause.
So not only have I been struggling to teach something that is totally useless, and has no application in the real world outside of the profession of grammar teachers, I have been struggling to teach it while correcting the mistakes in the book that is supposed to support the subject.
I can understand teaching students that “their” is possessive, “there” indicates position, and “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”.
I can understand teaching that “its” is the possessive while “it’s” is a contraction of “it is”, or that “who’s” is a contraction of “who is” while “whose” is the possessive.
I can understand teaching that “your” is possessive and “you’re” is a contraction of “you are.” I wish half the people posting on the Internet understood this distinction.
But if there is any value in knowing the definition of an appositive phrase, it is beyond me to see it.
It will be a real pleasure to finish this term, complete the paperwork, and walk away forever from prescriptive grammar.
So, What Am I Teaching?
For their written assignment, the students must generate a paragraph that begins with a simple declarative sentence (subject + predicate) that can serve as a topic sentence, followed by a compound sentence (independent clause + conjunction + independent clause), followed by a complex sentence (independent clause + subordinate clause in any order), followed by a compound-complex sentence (two or more independent clauses with a subordinate clause, again in any order), and finally completed with a simple declarative sentence that can serve as a conclusion.
Above is an example I generated. It’s colour coded with blue under the independent clauses, red under the subordinate clauses, and yellow under the conjunctions. This is not the way to create great prose, but at least it shows how a variety of sentence structures can form a paragraph.
Here’s another: I have been trying to convince the students that a topic sentence like: “My best friend is a lovely girl.” really conveys no information at all. Here’s an example I generated to illustrate the potential of using actual description.
I’ve asked the students to at least try to pick a subject that interests them, and generate sentences that are interesting, amusing, silly, or otherwise worth reading. Perhaps my examples are not sufficient inspiration, but I’m hopeful that my final marking in China will not be yet another exercise in painful tedium.
Collecting the Sister in Shanghai
My sister Catherine arrived last week from Vancouver. She’s here to take our dog back to Canada. It turned out to be cheaper to buy her a return ticket and have a visit with her than it would have been to send the dog by itself. GouGou’s name is pronounced GoGo = “dog dog” in Chinese. The Chinese favour double syllable names for dogs; Names like FeiFei (fat fat) or WangWang (woof woof). She can’t fly with us when we leave at the end of the month because Air Canada will not accept a dog after June 20 and our contracts run to June 30. Hence the visit from Catherine.
I caught the Gao (high speed) train in to Shanghai and took the subway to the airport to meet Cath’s flight.
Almost 300 klicks and as smooth as sitting in my living room. Acceleration so gentle that I hardly feel it. You can tell that the gentleman in the picture below is on the edge of his seat with the adrenalin and thrill of such speed.
TheyAnd then into Shanghai with its amazing subway system, so well designed that even a foreigner can find his way with no problem. I am always impressed with the system. Less so with the passengers, many of whom seem incapable of understanding that letting passengers off the train before they try to board is a good idea.
The double layers of doors are a great improvement. They prevent anybody from being pushed onto the track in front of an approaching train, and prevent suicides, which I know happen in Toronto far more frequently than you would ever imagine. What they don’t do is prevent people from standing in front of them when passengers are trying to get off the train.Despite the brass arrows inlaid right into the platform, there are always people who stand right in front of the doors and push to board while the passengers are trying to get out of the car.
We’ve had a wonderful time with my sister for the past ten days. On her last visit she was cheated out of a day in Shanghai by a call to fill in for a missing teacher, so she was looking forward to a day in the city. During this visit she also got in a day trip to Nanjing with Gloria and Panda
George had us out for a hotpot lunch with the daughter of one of his father’s associates, a girl who needed to practice her English with foreigners. He also drove us to a new park along the lakeside where GouGou could run off leash and we could admire the flowers.
TheyGloria, Catherine and Ruth and I (behind the camera, of course) had fun shopping and exploring Wuxi.
And Cath got her day in Shanghai. That’s the famous Pearl Tower in the background.Time to play “Where’s Catherine”. She’s in the picture, and I can see her. My sister had a limited shopping list. She wanted to buy some fans for children to play with, and some trinkets for other family members. Really just an excuse to get into the markets of Shanghai, which we did with a vengeance. Ruth had a bit of stomach trouble so she stayed behind at a Subway restaurant while Catherine and I and our friend Chen WeiWei, who had come to Shanghai for the day with us, explored the pet market and antique street.
Wrapping up the Term
One of my classes invited us all to a restaurant for an end of term feast. Despite what might seem like hostility and attitude expressed on the T-shirt below, the students were all friendly and welcoming, and we had a great time.
Cath has been renting one of the vacant apartments in the foreign teachers’ building for her stay here: 80 yuan/night ($13.30 Canadian/night) for a clean and comfortable suite that includes a living room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom with western toilet, shower, and washing machine. A bargain. Last night we all gathered there and had pizza delivered from Papa Johns. We’ve been working this weekend, because that gives us three days off for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday. GouGou has had her last visit to her beloved campus island park. I gave her a bath. We’ve applied the topical medicine, protecting her from fleas, ticks, and heart worms. All her paperwork is in order and her reservation for the flight has been checked and double checked. Tomorrow we’ve arranged for our favourite driver, Xiao He, to come to our apartment to take me, GouGou and Catherine to the Shanghai Pudong airport where I’ll see them off to Canada. We’re ready.
Once again it’s Graduation Time
I always find this time of year rather bitter sweet. The students we first met four years ago are now graduating, and I’m frequently stopped on campus with a request for a picture. They are moving on, though many of them will be going for “further studies” because the job market for a mere BA is bleak. And of course this is our last year in China, and we are moving on as well. Sigh. It’s time, but that doesn’t make it feel better.