An American Abroad

Archives for March 2014

Final Exams in Two Classes

Students in two more of my classes at Shane English Yuxi had their final exams last week — and now I have a stack of tests to grade.

My twelve-year-olds have come a long way. Months ago, this was my most challenging class because of the widely varying ability levels among the students. But on the oral test, everyone rose to the occasion. Summer, my TA in this class, deserves most of the credit for that.

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The other class I tested was a group of wonderful eight-year-olds. We have a lot of laughs in this class, but there is serious learning going on as well. Emma, my TA in this class, was just terrific and enjoyed working with these students as much as I did.

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Robbing the Cradle in Chinese

I was talking with a middle-aged Chinese friend recently who admitted to finding a young Korean pop star very handsome. “Really? Wow,” I said. “You’re really robbing the cradle.” She didn’t know that idiom, so I explained it to her.

She laughed and then she reciprocated, telling me that in Chinese, the same idea is expressed as lao niu chi nen cao (老牛吃嫩草), which literally means “old cow eating tender grass.”

I love it. Like may Chinese idioms, it’s earthy and hilarious.


Zippy is a 2005 Zipstar LZX 125-6 motorcycle built by what was then called the Chonquing Zongshen Number Two Motorcycle Co., Ltd. and is now called Zongshen PEM Power Systems, Inc.

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Zippy used to belong to my colleague Matt, but since he is returning to Wales for an extended visit home, Zippy now belongs to me!

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Like almost every motorcycle in China, Zippy is small by American standards, with a displacement of just 125cc — less than one-fifth the size of my Kawasaki KLR 650. Larger bikes are very rare here because they are taxed very heavily.

After having a few minor repairs and adjustments made yesterday, I took Zippy for a three-hour ride this morning. We headed northeast out of Yuxi, initially tracking the bicycle route I took last summer. This time, though, I went a lot further. I passed through many small villages where farmers still till their fields with oxen and wood-frame plows. I rode up switchbacks into the mountains. For the most part, the road was smooth concrete, but this occasionally gave way to mud and gravel. Zippy’s light weight made for easy handling even on uncertain surfaces. I did, however, manage to plow through a deep mud puddle which undid the careful cleaning job I’d given Zippy before we left. But it was a fine shakedown trip–the first of many such excursions, I hope.

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Class Portraits

I’ve taught this primary school class for almost eight months. Many of these students were among the first I had at Shane English Yuxi. Yesterday was our last review class before the final exam, so I took a few pictures. Sad to say, once this course is completed, the class will likely be split and I will lose many of my favorite students. But while they were together, they were the class that always made me the happiest.

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It made me very happy . . .

. . . to learn yesterday that in northern Chinese dialect, an bu neng si (which sounds very much like “ambulance” when said quickly) means “I can’t die!”

Yuxi In Bloom, Under Construction, On Guard

Spring has arrived in Yuxi and the public gardens are in bloom.

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Other parts of town are considerably less scenic right now. There is a new mayor here, known to everyone as “Mr. Finger”: he points at a building and BOOM, it’s gone the next day. There are enormous highrise shopping and residential complexes being built in two different locations and an underground shopping plaza being put beneath one of Yuxi’s major commercial streets. There is a new outpatient care building being added to Yuxi People’s Hospital and numerous other medium-sized buildings sprouting up all over town.

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Meanwhile in the wake of the Kunming terror attack two weeks ago, there are still armed police and soldiers stationed around the schools and near shopping centers. They aren’t keen on being photographed, but I managed to snap this pic of them near a school.

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75 Countries

This blog hit a milestone yesterday: viewers in 75 different countries.

Thank you to all my readers in Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, France, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kuwait, Libya, Macau, Malaysia, Malta, Mexico, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Paraguay, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Vietnam.

After the Funeral Procession

I was working on one of my MOOCs this morning around 10:00 when I heard a lengthy round of firecrackers going off down in the street. I peered through my window and saw that the firecrackers were being tossed off the back of a three-wheeler. Behind that were people parading down Zhuge East Road. They were carrying floats decorated with a model of a Chinese house and many flowers. By the time I got my shoes on, grabbed my camera, and took the elevator down 18 floors, the parade was over and the floats were being packed up into a truck. The people stood around and chatted, many of them with their heads wrapped in white turbans and their bodies covered with white tunics. They seemed to be in a good mood and gladly acquiesced to my request to take their photos.

Later I learned from some Chinese friends that this was a funeral procession. White is the color of death and mourning in China, which explains the tunics and turbans.
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(I was cautioned never to give white flowers to someone outside of a funeral.) The model of the house and the flowers are to symbolize the possessions of the decedent.
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If the person who’s died is old, then the funeral party is generally a more festive one.

Terrorism’s Aftermath

In the five days since the horrible attack on people at the Kunming train station just 70 miles north of here, I’ve seen how the Chinese government and people react to terrorism. The current death toll is 33, with 130 injured, of whom 70 are in critical condition. It’s a little early for me to try to spin grand theories about what all this means. What follows is more of a notebook of observations.

  • I’ve seen detachments of police (or soldiers?) decked out in full body armor and carrying machine guns around Yuxi. Two days ago, they were near a construction site where a crowd of people had gathered to watch workmen put a temporary bridge over an excavation site. Last night I saw them standing outside Walmart. Today they were at a local public school. This is in addition to an increased unarmed police presence on the streets. And is it my imagination, or are those police sporting new uniforms?
  • I also saw a group of six Communist Party cadres dressed in civilian clothes and red armbands, carrying long thick wooden sticks, and walking in a somewhat ragged line around the public school. They were all men and all over fifty: not a particularly intimidating sight.
  • My passport was checked at the Mengzi train station on Sunday.
  • I interpret this as a big show designed to convince the people that the government and the party are going to keep them safe. Shows of police power and irregulars with big sticks makes me and my British colleagues feel less safe. The reaction of my Chinese colleagues and friends, though, is just the opposite. Here is a cultural impasse; I don’t understand the Chinese reaction and they don’t understand mine.
  • Chinese news stories are heaping lavish praise on the heroism of police on the scene at the time of the attacks. Stories in the western media, however, quote Chinese people as being less than pleased with the police response.
  • Rumors abound. I’ve heard that a bomb went off in Chengdu on the same day as the knife attack, that all the Muslim restauranteurs vanished from the streets of Kunming after the attack, that people wearing shirts with Turkic writing on them have been attacked, and that people with brown skins have been chased by angry mobs. I doubt most of these stories, but the point is that the state media’s refusal to go into detail about the attacks creates fertile ground for wild rumors.
  • Speaking of Uighurs, it’s been reported on American news sites that the Chinese government and news media have yet to use the word “Uighur” in any articles about the attack, referring only generally to “terrorists” and “separatists” and “the Xinjiang region.”
  • Atrocity photos of people injured or killed in the attack are circulating on Weibo and Weishin, pictures that are much more horrific than anything shown on TV.

Tunisia in September

Today I finalized a decision two months in the making. After my contract here in China is complete at the end of June, I will be moving to Sousse, Tunisia where I have accepted a position with AMIDEAST, an American NGO engaged in international education, training, and development throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

It was difficult to decide to leave China, where I have been so warmly welcomed by colleagues and the people of Yuxi. I am having a wonderful experience at Shane English Yuxi and recommend it highly to anyone considering teaching English abroad. It’s a well-run institution with high standards and a solid commitment to education. I’ve also made friends in the Yuxi community who have welcomed me into their homes and families and shown me aspects of China I never would have seen otherwise. I will be sorry to leave them. I look forward to my remaining 16 weeks here.

Nevertheless, I am eagerly anticipating my new home and job in Tunisia. I expect to be working in several capacities for AMIDEAST. One is teaching English to young people—something I’ve learned much about in my job here in China. Another is working with corporations and other organizations in Tunisia that want their employees to learn English with an emphasis on the concepts and terminology of their particular industries. I am especially excited about becoming involved in Access, a program funded by the U.S. State Department that provides free English instruction and American cultural exposure to promising Tunisian teenagers of modest means.

Sousse is the third-largest city in Tunisia and is located right on the Mediterranean coast.

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It attracts thousands of European visitors every year, drawn by the good beaches and turquoise seas. The medina there is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Tunis, the ruins of Carthage, and a well-preserved Roman amphitheater are within daytripping distance.

When I say goodbye to my friends and colleagues here in China, I may do some further travel in Asia and then return to Toledo for a few weeks to see family and friends. I will then head for North Africa in order to start work there in September.