Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In the Office

Monday, I went into the supply room at the office to get some red pens to correct my students' essays. I discovered that one of the women who works there is trying to learn English. So, whenever I go in to ask for supplies she asks, "Zenme shuo yingyu?" (How do you say in English?) I find this useful since I need to learn the words for things like binder, photocopies, and anything else I may need for class.

Today, I had to sign for the supplies that I received. I noticed the Chinese above the column for my signature, but didn't know two of them. I asked the other woman in the supply room what it said and discovered that I guessed one of the two correctly. She asked me if I could read Chinese I said, "Yi dian dian." (A little bit.) I then told her that I know about 300 characters, to which she responded, "Not enough." Usually when I say I know 300 characters people are impressed. This is the first time I got an honest response about my level of Chinese.

If you don't believe the rarity of hearing an honest response to the language ability, I have examples. I have had plenty of experiences with people telling me I speak Chinese very well after hearing me say, "Ni hao," and "Xie xie." Knowing only a few words and phrases does not mean I know much of a language.

Also while in the supply room, I received a call from someone I didn't know and who didn't speak English (that's a sign that I don't want to answer the call). After refusing to answer the first two times, I finally picked up the phone. I answered with, "I don't speak Chinese." The women in the office thought this was really funny considering I was talking to them in Chinese.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

According to the lunar calendar, today is the Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong qiu jie), also known as the Moon Festival. Everyone tells me it's the second most important day on the Chinese calendar (the first being Spring Festival). My students offered an English greeting for today and were quite pleased to hear me respond with the Chinese version. I even received one moon cake from a student at the end of class. They all seemed a little disappointed to have classes today--they even said they wouldn't have time later in the day to celebrate with their friends and classmates because there's too much work to do (and I didn't assign any of it this week). I told them their homework was to call their parents tonight.

I was also informed that my office will give the staff some moon cake today (but they have to give it at the end of the day because it needs to be refrigerated). I'm really thinking that they're spoiling me here.

For those who don't know what moon cakes are, they are a kind of pastry that sits in your stomach for about a week while you try to digest it. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit. Most don't taste all that bad, but they really do make you slow after eating one.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Happily Cheesey

It was a full weekend. Fasted Saturday for Yom Kippur and had a nice dinner and conversations. A few of us went out for a drink after dinner. I even found that my Spanish is a little better than I remember--I was understood quite a bit of the conversations around me. I think that after I learn enough Chinese to effectively communicate with people, I'll go back and re-learn Spanish.

Sunday, Jia, her mom, and I went to Splendid China and the Folk Culture Village. It sure was a trip. I was not disappointed by the cheesiness. I'll post a full story with photos soon.

I need to correct a small error from a previous post: The No-Car Day was Saturday. And the Shenzhen Daily headline today read, "Traffic jams plague No-Car Day." I even have a first-hand account from my boss who took a trip up to Guangzhou on Saturday. She said it took her more than three hours to get there from Shenzhen. This is really bad considering the bus from my apartment took less than two hours during the week last month. No-Car Day was highly unsuccessful around China.

According to another news report that was passed along to me by my wife, Shenzhen is the least happy city in China. Kunming and Chengdu were at the top of list for happiest cities. This gave me a great discussion topic for my students today. I was pleasantly surprised to hear them say that they would be happy with "enough money to live." I like not having greedy students. Very few of them admitted to being happy here--most wanted to go home after they finish their degrees. The best answer today to "What do you need to be happy?" was "Food," which was given by a few students.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Fasting on Photo Friday

Shana tova, everyone. For Yom Kippur, I present to you a view of the Western Wall in Jerusalem from the summer of 2005. Unfortunately, all my photos from my trip to Israel were on an older camera, which means I only have a few scanned copies. I really wish I had my digital camera then.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quick Shock

I don't believe my students are human. At least not my Tuesday and Wednesday classes. I gave them until Thursday afternoon to hand in their assignments and they've all handed them in early. And most of the them look good (I haven't marked any yet, just browsed through). Since when do graduate students hand in assignments early? Anyway, it's quite a pleasant shock.

I've also managed to get some conversations started in those classes. We discussed the car-free week here in China. Supposedly 108 cities are participating and forcing government employees to take public transportation to work. There's also going to be a private-vehicle ban on all major roads for twelve hours on Friday. So far, while waiting for the school bus in the morning, I haven't noticed any changes in traffic (has anyone noticed a difference?). I am curious about how long it'll take to get to work on Friday without as many cars, although I think the ban will only be on a couple roads that the bus takes.

Some of the more interesting student responses to "Why would people rather drive a car?": "They have a lot of pride in their car." "They'll lose face if they don't drive." While the wording of the responses sound culturally significant, I can't help thinking that they're very similar to American views.

Other class-related story: I had a visitor to my office hours yesterday. He just wanted to talk and improve his English level. He asked if I had any problems with getting cheated while traveling in China (he needed a little help phrasing the question). I said, "Sometimes. It's worse when my wife isn't around." He proceeded to say that he thought people in Shenzhen tend to cheat others more often. He also told me about his friends getting ripped off in Guangzhou. He compared southern Chinese to northern (where he's from)--he seems to perceive southerners as less honest and less polite as those in his home region.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hutong Wandering

The following is an installment from the summer journey.

A while back, my parents mailed a short article to me (they often send news clippings about travel in Asia and events back home). This particular article was about side streets in Beijing--I found it just before moving and traveling to Beijing to meet my parents and brother. I figured it'd provide at least a few hours of something different from the previous year's trip through the capital.

I studied my map and found that the street in the article (Nan Luoguxiang) was not too far from the Drum and Bell Towers--it turned out to be about a 15-minute walk east along the main street. It sounded like there was enough to check out for the afternoon--it was either try this or find a taxi to somewhere else. We were pleasantly surprised.

Nan Luoguxiang is a quiet hutong neighborhood in the process of remodeling that is home to quite a few small bars, restaurants, and arts shops that are difficult to find elsewhere in the city. We discovered a small foot massage parlor (38RMB for one hour) and let my mom and brother take up the two available spots. My father and I walked along the street to find a snack and settled on the Pass By. There are two along the street and we chose the one further from the main road. They actually served spring rolls (anyone who lives in China knows that these are a rarity). There's also a great "hutong pizza," which is cheese covering spicy chunks of barbecued lamb.

The artistic shops have quite a few unique items. There are a couple of really nice T-shirt shops, but the prices are set and they are in the range of what you'd expect to pay in the U.S. My favorite shop was Grifted. They had some amusing shirts and other items. I ended up with a waving Chairman Mao doll and Jia got a shirt with a cartoon of Buddha looking like a tourist. They also had a shirt with a cartoon Chinese guy, shirtless with a beer and yelling "Ni hao!" Next to the shop was a small photo gallery chronicling the progress of reconstructing the neighborhood--the photos were beautiful.

On a few nights we stopped in the bars. These places are mostly small and quiet. We found the newly-opened Catcher in the Rye and we were the only customers. For those seeking a cheap night out, there's always the 10 RMB Bar--and there are others that have similar prices. Most bars have a decent selection of imported beers for travelers who are tired of Tsingtao (it was really nice to have a Newcastle).

At the moment, this narrow hutong street is fairly unknown to tourists, although it is getting more press and will probably be quite crowded by the time the Olympics arrive. So far, there is no Starbucks located there, but you can buy coffee at the restaurants and bars. After two trips through Beijing, I have to say that this is my favorite part of the city.


Saturday, September 15, 2007

Which way to Hanoi?

It's been a busy week here. It was rather tiring, but it went well. I met some really interesting people who are new to Shenzhen (some staying here, some just passing through) at dinner and lunch for Rosh Hashanah. I also got confused in a variety of languages ranging from Hebrew, French, Spanish, and others (I can't remember where a few of the people are from). Of course, I made my pathetic attempts to speak Spanish with H. from Colombia. It really makes me wish I hadn't half-assed Spanish class in high school and college.

To go along with the mixture of language, I present a slightly delayed Friday photo from my wife's hometown in Xinjiang province. Please note that the two characters 河内 can mean "inside the river" as well as a city of Vietnam. Seeing as we were in the northwest of China, I think they chose the wrong translation.

Monday, September 10, 2007

This is not a recall

Jia thought she lost her MP3 the other day. Yesterday she found it... in the pocket of her skirt after it had been through the washing machine. Somehow it still works fine. If anyone is curious, it was fairly inexpensive. I think the brand was So Good. Guess we have to recommend that one for durability.

On to airline news. Shenzhen Airlines is planning to be the first Chinese carrier to allow cellphones to be used during flights. I personally don't care how they're going to accomplish this goal. In fact, I will now boycott the airline for this move. I don't want to sit with 100 people shouting on their phones during a three-hour flight around China. I don't even like riding the bus with people talking on their phones. When I fly, all I want is for everyone to be quiet so that I can make my futile attempt to fall asleep.

Finally, I would like to make a plea for donations to my football fund. That's right, I'm asking for money so that I can watch/listen to football online. I tried to wake up early Sunday to catch the Penn State-Notre Dame game only to find out that I'd have to pay just to listen to the game. Anyway, GO PSU!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Food and Toilets

Yesterday was Jia's birthday. After work I took her out to dinner in the Garden City Center. We figured we could walk around a bit and decide what to eat. Our choices came down to sushi and BBQ. Jia finally decided on the Brazilian BBQ.

The Amazon Brazilian BBQ is usually a pretty good buffet meal--they bring lots of barbecued meat on swords right to you. The other food selection is lacking, however. The salad is drenched in dressing that is far too salty (as are most of the other fruit/vegetable selections). There is a decent selection of fresh fruit though, next to the desserts that pretty good for China. Unlike at other locations, this one had much better service--they just kept bringing the food out to us without a break. It seems that at different locations or at different times they have different barbecued meat--last time I went, I had camel; last night they had some much better cuts of beef and lamb. There was also a guy playing guitar and singing (I don't know what he was singing as it was all Chinese).

Only problem with dining at Garden City Center is that there aren't toilets in the restaurants. But have no fear, the public toilets at this mall are the best in China (I've experienced plenty: see previous article). I couldn't believe my eyes (and nose) the restroom was clean and I even spotted Western-style toilets in stalls that weren't reserved for the handicapped. I am proud to offer my award for "Best Public Toilet in China" to the Garden City Center in Shenzhen. There's even a good chance that this may be the best public toilet I've ever seen.

Friday, September 07, 2007

One week down

First week of teaching is finished. I think it went fairly well considering a couple SNAFUs. We're still finalizing a new plan for the PhD students after some minor concerns from the academic affairs department, but it should be fine by Monday or so.

It's been like pulling teeth to get my students to talk during the first half of class. At least I've managed to get them all going by the second half. It would be nice if they all had better English skills, but I'll settle for the decent effort they're making for now.

I had my small PhD class today. Most of them attended the master's program at the same university and have passed a similar English class (hence we're changing the curriculum). Fortunately, only four of them have previously studied the book we're using (but they could use a little review). I did get a little shock from one student--I asked, "Why is writing in English important?" He responded with, "I don't think it's important." I asked him to explain his answer and support it. He did, and with some impressive English skills at that. However, after the first half of class in which I talked about the writing process, he was a little more open to learning. He came to me during the break to say that my lesson interested him. Great, I'm all for compliments on the first day.

Some interesting answers to questions: "Why are you studying this subject?" "To get a girlfriend." "Why do you say Qingdao is a beautiful city." "Because it has Tsingtao beer."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

First Days

I've gone through a few days of teaching at the university. It seems like a good place to work. I wouldn't mind having students with better English skills, but at least most of them are trying. Fortunately, the classes are an hour and a half--this gives me plenty of time to get the students talking. So far, the first half hour of each class has been a struggle; coaxing students to say a few words on the first day is difficult.

Today, it took a bit longer to get the students talking, but it was worth it. Out of my first three classes, this one has the best English skills. Even the students whose skills were lacking at least tried to say something. The biggest problem I ran into was during our short break when one of the students showed me his engineering book (entirely in English). He said he would like me to help him and his classmates to understand the book. I assured him that I'd try, but engineering is a foreign language to me.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Messin' with Visas

It all started last week when I went with my co-worker to the immigration department to get my new residence permit so I can legally work here. We thought everything was in order until the officer of the hour decided that he wanted to change the rules (or maybe just enforce the rules that aren't always enforced). Anyway, he said I had to get an interview at another police department before I could apply for the visa. This being Friday, the interview office decided not to answer their phones from 11 am until Monday.

We managed to get an appointment just before lunch on Monday. And everything went quite smoothly. I really wasn't asked any questions aside from, "Is this information correct?" So, after lunch we headed back to immigration to get the new visa. We had to hope that this application would be accepted since my visa expired that day. This time around, we got the straightforward officer who quickly processed the papers and told us everything was fine.

Turns out my co-worker was more worried than I was. Even after she kept telling me that everything would be alright. She even told me that she lost sleep over the weekend because of the situation.

Then there is the story of the weekend. Jia and I went out with a group of friends on Saturday. We wanted to hit the local spots. First was the club with the good rock bands. Problem there was that to get a draft beer the bartenders had to find a glass because they didn't have enough. For convenience, we asked if they had a deal for a dozen bottles of beer. We got two answers. One guy said 300 kuai for two dozen while the other said 300 kuai for one dozen. We were quite irritated by the second answer. We headed out to the bar next door. They asked for more money and required us to buy a VIP card in order to buy drinks slightly cheaper. This was contrary to the other night when Jia asked and they said it was 240 kuai for a dozen AND they'd give us a dozen free. Well, they just lost a lot of foreign business for the next year.

We ended up heading down a side street near J.'s apartment. There were a bunch of cheap restaurants to drink at (we found one Friday for 2 kuai beers). For some reason we went to a small, dirty karaoke bar (I think the name translated to "Tonight's Love"). The staff was quite nice, the singing was terribly off-key, and the beer was really cheap. We played liar's dice for a while and noticed a couple of foreigners arrived after us. These were the kind of foreigners who make you feel ashamed to be foreign. One of the two was falling-down drunk and quite rude. The other looked a bit more on the quiet drunk side. Considering it took two or three guys to carry the super-drunk guy to the toilet, I would've expected the friends to drag him home. But they stayed, drank, and spilled beer all over themselves. We did our best to ignore them and continued to quietly play dice.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Sometimes a few languages

The Grand Bazaar in Urumqi, Xinjiang province is certainly getting commercialized. Next to the KFC is a Carrefour. That means a Starbucks or three can't be far behind. But there are still some great things to buy in this immense market.

All signs in the city are tri-lingual (either Chinese, a form of Arabic (I think Turkic), and English or Russian). Unfortunately, I couldn't find a sign that had all four languages.

For anyone wondering, I have not discovered what they call Col. Sanders in China. Apparently he's just some really white American who makes chicken.