An American Abroad

Archives for September 2013

Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival

Even though Mid-Autumn Festival was actually celebrated last week, the huge display of lights, exhibits and performances going on at Nie Er Music Square is still going on. (If you’re wondering why China holds a Mid-Autumn Festival at the very beginning of fall, it’s because China operates on both the western and lunar calendars. Under the latter, it is now mid-autumn.) After teaching last night, I took a cab ride there to check it out.

When I arrived, traditional dancers were performing at the large outdoor stage.
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Next up was a singing dancing policewoman who opened with a rousing number about the dangers of texting while driving.
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Then, just to make sure we all Got It, the song’s lesson was enacted by the policewoman and a young man who came out on stage with his head in his Samsung Galaxy. He was immediately collared by the policewoman.
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To loosely paraphrase Woody Allen, the policewoman was played with real passion and verve, while the miscreant texter transitioned effectively from impressive stolidity to abject remorse. A droll but thought-provoking exposition of contemporary mores.

Having had my fill of terpsichore, I meandered toward the large artificial lake that lies in the center of the park. Huge illuminated floats had been erected around the shore.
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Along one side of the lake, vendors in hundreds of booths had set up shop, selling everything from children’s toys to water heaters to kitchen knives. I wasn’t in the market for any of that, but I did score some delicious shao kao from this Muslim woman before heading home.
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My Teaching Gig

I haven’t written much about my job here, which is teaching English to the children of Yuxi. I had a perilous start due to changes in Chinese work visa rules, but now that those issues are resolved, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my work.

I work for Shane English Yuxi, which is an affiliate of a chain of British language schools that operate under the umbrella of The Saxoncourt Group. In addition to running English schools in China, Saxoncourt has operations in Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Algeria, and Poland. It has developed an integrated curriculum and a system for teaching it.

Shane English Yuxi is a private English school and is not part of the Chinese public school system. The 550 kids who take English from us do so either in the evenings or on the weekends, when they are not attending their regular Chinese schools. There are other language schools in Yuxi, but Shane is the only one to employ native speakers. That costs more and is reflected in the tuition charges. Nevertheless, due to the one-child policy, nearly every kid here has two parents and four grandparents devoted to his or her welfare and willing to pay for it.

I’m currently teaching nine classes, each of which meets once a week for 90 minutes, plus a ten minute break. I expect to be assigned one or two more; eleven courses is considered a full load. I teach one course each on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings and three courses each on Saturdays and Sundays. I also spend about ten hours a week preparing my classes and attending teachers meetings.

In each class, I have a bilingual Chinese teaching assistant who provides translation when needed. Though we strive to be an English-only environment, there are situations where it is necessary to communicate with children and their parents in Mandarin. The TAs also run the review classes, which also are scheduled once a week for 90 minutes. They help keep order in the classroom, grade the daily spelling tests and workbook entries, and assist with logistics. Many of them know the Shane system very well, and I rely on them for help in understanding what my students already know and what they don’t. They are terrific teachers in their own right and make me look much better than I really am.

My classes fall into three age groups: kindergarteners, six to nine year olds, and nine to twelve year olds.

The kindergarteners are sweet, if a little short in the attention span department. We play lots of physical games: hotseat, run-and-tap, throw-the-sticky-ball-at-the-board, etc. We use music that involves movements (run, walk, swim, dance, hop, skip, jump, touch, etc.). The students use a book that consists primarily of pictures to be colored. These classes can have unpredictable emotional and interpersonal problems: a sobbing girl who refused to leave her mother’s side to enter the classroom, a whole class that one day just went unaccountably bananas, a boy who became angry and sullen when another kid banged into him hard. The TAs work hard to keep the kids focused.

The kids between six and nine have a lot of material to master while at the same time being at an age when they are experimenting with being deliberately naughty. One of my classes at this level has a number of students drawn from my summer phonics minicourse. They know me and I know them and the class runs fairly smoothly. Other classes at this level, though, are more of a handful: they have boundless energy and a determination to test the limits of authority.

The students nine and above are more sedate, less interested in physical games and more into jokes and verbal challenges. I enjoy these students a lot. By this age, they know enough English to have real conversations. They’re also committed to learning, or they would have dropped out. At this level, they begin keeping diaries according to a prompt I give them each class. A few weeks ago, we did a unit on rules which contrasted “not allowed to” with “must.” I asked the students to write about the rules in their Chinese schools. Here is one of the results, written by Michael, a twelve year old:
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I’ve learned that teaching young kids is a lot harder than teaching older kids and adults. As such, I have a newfound respect for elementary school teachers. They have a great deal of foundational material to teach and so many behavior issues to contend with. There’s a lot of psychologizing involved. Even for someone who has raised kids himself, children at that age can seem like an alien species. It’s a species I am getting reacquainted with and one that I am determined to do well by.

Speaking Chinese with the Cobbler

Since I walk almost everywhere, the heels on one of my pairs of dress shoes were getting seriously worn down, so naturally I went to a cobbler. My very rudimentary Chinese did nothing to prepare me for a discussion of heels, soles, polishing, and choice of materials. I wish I had a recording of the fairly hilarious conversation that ensued. It probably went something like this:

The nice thing, though, is that even though Yuxi people rarely encounter foreigners, I have found them to be almost uniformly patient, tolerant, understanding, and of good humor. And I now have new heels.

A Typical Day

Friends have asked me, “So, what’s China like?” Hard question to answer, but I thought that I would chronicle what I did yesterday by way of answering.

Out of a decades-old habit, my eyes flick open at 5:45 am. I am lying on a Chinese mattress, which is actually something more like a box spring with a thin, flexible sheet of cardboard fitted over the top and covered by the thinnest of padding. I head for the bathroom and relieve myself into what is essentially a ceramic pan set into the floor. Then I head for my kitchen and put two scoops of delicious Yunnan roast into my coffee maker and pump a carafe full of water from my large water bottle.

Once the coffee is brewing, I head back to the bedroom and fire up my Mac. I always read the news and try to catch up with friends first thing in the morning. The New York Times, Twitter, and Facebook are always blocked by the Great Firewall of China, and lately so are the South China Morning Post (a Hong Kong daily) and many of the stories on CNN. Google and YouTube are also inaccessible, but I can still connect to Skype to chat with my family back home. If I really want to use sites that are blocked, I can log into my VPN, which routes all my internet activity through a server in Cyprus.

Though my apartment is in a new building, it has neither central heat nor air conditioning. It’s a little chilly this morning, but a hot shower under the heat lamps warms me up. I pull the clothes off the rack by the open window where they have spent the night drying in the evening breeze. Dryers are rare here. I get dressed and get ready to run my morning errands.

The first order of business is to head over to the electric company. Last night, I came home to find my bill taped to my door. This is the usual way that bills are delivered in a country where there is no real residential mail service.

I take the elevator down from my 18th floor apartment and walk up Yuxi’s main street. Auto traffic is heavier in the morning, the usual mix of Chinese and Japanese makes plus Volkswagens, Citroens, Fords, Buicks, Chevrolets and BMWs. The electric company’s offices are on the ground floor of a 30-story office building. I walk in, hand one of the tellers my bill and my Chinese debit card, and in a few minutes I’m heading out again. The bill came to ¥50 this month, about $8.00. That’s high compared to what my colleagues here pay, but I have an electric water heater, while my coworkers have solar.

I pass by a three-story mall I call The Ameriplex, since it is anchored by Walmart and McDonald’s. A sign informs me that there are now 392 Walmart outlets in China. Temptation overcomes me and I stop in to McDonald’s for a McNugget brunch. I order by pointing to a picture menu kept beside the cash registers. This is not primarily for foreigners (since there are so few of us here), but is used mostly by Chinese people who cannot read. My McNuggets are just as bland as they are back in the States and the fries are just as good. Other stores in The Ameriplex sell American and British brands, but not on the products we are used to in the States. Here, Jeep is a line of clothing, Zippo is a brand of flasks and knives, and Dunlop makes shoes and backpacks.

A narrow street runs behind The Ameriplex, and I head down that to where it intersects with an alley. It’s there that my seamstress conducts her business, right on the sidewalk. She is an old woman with a weathered peasant face and a nice smile. Her sewing machine is an ancient foot-powered Singer knock-off mounted in a handsome wooden table, which she lugs out here every day. Somehow I managed to put two holes in the back of the legs of a pair of trousers. I’d dropped them off with her the day before, and now they are ready, skillfully patched on the inside and cross-stitched on the outside. The charge for that and for resewing the button (which was hanging by a thread) was ¥8 (about $1.28).

I stop next at a new supermarket that has opened up in my neighborhood. For the most part, it resembles a small American supermarket, but the butcher counter is different. It’s essentially a table with large slabs of uncovered raw meat on it. Other meat sits openly on the floor atop a sheet of brown paper. Customers indicate what they want and the butcher cuts it on the spot. I have learned to avoid beef here. I stock up on food and dry goods and go check out. I have brought my own reusable bag; had I not, I would have been charged ¥1.5 (about $0.25) for a new one.

After putting away my groceries and neatening up my apartment, I again log on to the internet to continue the MOOCs I am taking through Coursera. I initially tried taking courses through EdX as well, but since it uses YouTube to deliver its video lectures, that’s not a good option for me here. All of the courses I am taking include an interactive map that shows the locations of each of the hundreds of students in the class. China’s map is depressingly bereft of the little pins that indicate a student, but other nearby countries are studded with them.

After being a student for a while, it’s time to go be a teacher. I change into my nice slacks, collared shirt and leather shoes and ride my bike to the school where I work. People here drive very slowly, even on the main streets, and I can usually keep up with the cars without difficulty.

Shane English School is located in a Youth Palace, a multi-use complex of buildings all dedicated to extracurricular activities for young people. There is a playground and a little amusement park, buildings dedicated to musical instruction, a pool, and a couple of language schools. Ours is the only one to employ native speakers—and it charges accordingly. I greet my British colleagues (I am the token American) and sit down at my desk to grade a stack of exams. Standards here are very high; it is a cause of much concern and discussion among the staff whenever a kid gets less than a 92%. Fortunately, in my class of 14 students, only two fall into that category.

After a staff meeting, I go in to teach one of my kindergarten classes. These students have already had a full day of regular school, but are now here at 6:20 for 100 minutes of English. The kids are fairly well-behaved tonight, which is a relief; last week some collective switch went off in their heads and caused them to be nothing short of wild. We review colors then dive into a vocabulary unit centered around clothing. I drill the students with flashcards and then set up games for them to play. They run to tag the flashcards I have posted up around the room. They throw sticky balls at the cards I have mounted on the board. They play hotseat, where the odd man out has to identify a clothing article before the game can continue. My Chinese teaching assistant is wonderful and does a thousand little things to ensure that the class runs as smoothly as possible.

Class ends and I have to clear the room quickly, because a group of older students is waiting to use the classroom. These students will be in class at our school until 10:00 at night. Chinese students work very long and hard.

I ride back home and take the bike up in the elevator with me. After cooking myself an impromptu chicken fried rice on my single-burner stove, I sit down to eat, answer a few emails, and work on some writing projects.

I click the lights out at about 11:00 and fall asleep listening to a lecture on iTunes about the early middle ages.

Present for the Teacher

Yesterday, one of my six-year-old students gave me a present, the first I have received from a pupil here.
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It’s . . . seaweed.
I was simultaneously touched and amused.

The Mikey Bike, Phase 2

With the help of the good people at Yuxi Bike, The Mikey Bike has some new farkles.
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Note the new pedals, bottle cage, tires, toptube pack, headlight and tail light. Less visible is a new rear axle. This bike has a heavy steel frame. It’ll never be a road racer or touring bike, but it’s a good city bike now, which is what I wanted. A new more doodads will complete the project. The weather has been rain, rain and rain here, but as soon as things clear up, I’m going riding.


I went to the Entry and Exit Administration Service Center of the Public Security Bureau of Yuxi City (“We Serve to Please”) today to complete a process that began two and a half months ago. I emerged more than an hour later with this nifty little addition to my passport:
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That is a Chinese residence permit, sort of like an American green card, which allows me to live and work in China and to enter and leave the country without restriction. There’s also a bottle of Yanjing beer in the picture, which I cracked open to celebrate!

Mekong River Blues

Fifty four hours after returning from Hong Kong, I found myself in another Yuxi bus station boarding the night bus to Xishuangbanna. It sure weren’t no Greyhound.

Do you wanna
Go to Xishuangbanna?
Then come along with me.
They got the Dai and the Thai
And the Hmong in Jinghong
And the shao kao can’t be beat.

Modeling the other passengers, I removed my shoes upon boarding and placed them in a red plastic bag. Then I stepped inside a space configured like the cabins at the Poconos summer camp I went to as a boy.
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There were three end-to-end stretches of double bunk beds, one by each row of windows and another running the length of the center. The counselor/driver occupied a special area up front while we camper/passengers filed in and dibs’d our beds. (Look! There’s Billy Collins on the lower bunk. And he’s making a lanyard!)

I tried to climb into the first available upper berth, but I just didn’t fit no matter how I contorted myself. The driver and some of the passengers stared and laughed. After ritually thrice declining the driver’s offer of more spacious accommodations, I gratefully moved to the rear, where the high bunk spanned the bus’s full width. There was already one guy up there on the left, so I snugged myself in against the right side. It was still far from comfortable: not enough headroom to sit up, not enough length to stretch out, and not enough padding to let me forget that the back of a bus is always the bumpiest part.
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I just dozed off when the diesel roared and the bus began to roll southwest. I drowsed fitfully and uncomfortably for the next ten hours, jolted to full consciousness by every middling bump in the road. When I finally disembarked it was raining and I felt remarkably unrefreshed.

Xishuangbanna is an autonomous prefecture of China and home to the Dai people, relatives ethnically and etymologically to the Thai. It’s situated on the Mekong River where China, Laos and Burma converge.
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The bus let me off in the capital city of Jinghong.

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A gateway to Southeast Asia, Jinghong is a very much a tourist town, for good and ill. It has cafes that cater to the vagabond set, warm, welcoming places that offer coffee, food, advice, beer, company, WiFi, and music. (As I write this, I’m sitting in the Meimei Cafe drinking Hani Coffee while they’re playing KC and the Sunshine Band doing “Boogie Man.” Anchun and her staff have taken excellent care of me here.)
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Next door is the Mekong Cafe, where Nuhi (a Dutch/Albanian mutt) and Greg (a Frenchman) serve up the best pizza in Yunnan.

The streets are thick with palm trees and the markets overflow with fresh fruit. The town is being developed as a vacation destination for the Chinese, however, which has had some unfortunate results. Large garish hotels blight the streets.
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Rows and rows of shops sell the same mass-produced wooden elephants, jade jewelry, and tea shop paraphernalia. It’s like Pigeon Forge, only dirtier.

I wanted very badly to get out of Jinghong and to explore the countryside. I made arrangements to rent a bicycle, but then I was hit by a wicked case of Chairman Mao’s Revenge and spent the next 36 hours laying sweaty on a bed in a cheap (¥60 a night, about $9.80) hotel room staring at the ceiling and doing a sad impression of Captain Willard in the opening of Apocalypse Now.

The flora and the fauna
Here in Xishuangbanna
I never will forget.
But I got gut-sick
And I couldn’t do dick
But puke and shit and sweat.

When I mustered up a little energy I was able to walk only a few blocks and snap a few pix before returning to bed.
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By the time my gut returned to normal, it was time to head back to Yuxi. I took the day bus back, which mercifully had a conventional seating configuration.

I’ll go back to Xishuangbanna and explore more of the region. From what I saw out the bus window, it’s a beautiful area. I hope that next time I’ll be in better condition to appreciate it.

There’s heavenly manna
Down in Xishuangbanna,
But next time I hope to lose
That keep-you-up-all-night
Stomach parasite
And the Mekong River blues.