Author Archives: John

About John

Living and working in Taiwan.

Halloween in China

To kick off winter we had a staff party for all the Shane employees who work in the four schools located in Wuxi. Everybody was required to dress up and attend a large party that was given in a hotel ballroom of sorts. There was a karaoke machine, this is Asia of course, as well as food and beverages catered. Everybody went all out with costumes, and I was fortunate enough to be able to borrow an Obi-One Kenobi outfit from Star Wars, which meant I wasn’t required to do much more than grow out my beard.

 

Here is a photo of myself and Duane, the branch manager at the office I work at.

He went as a pirate obviously, but it seems nobody from China has ever heard of Star Wars, so I had to explain my costume to all of the Chinese staff, and they still didn’t get it. Then I tried to tell them it was basically a Western set in space, and they still didn’t get it. Then I told them it was a Kung-fu movie of sorts and it began to make a little more sense.

The next photo is of myself, Season and Sara.

Season is the one in next to me in purple and is my TA for four of my classes, almost half of my regular class load. She and I had a rough start, not particularly enjoying working with each other, but we are much better now. She sees a new teacher everything 10-12 months so I’m sure she’s jaded, plus they make most of their money on retention, so her livelihood depends on me making sure the kids want to sign back up at the end of every semester and not go to another school. It’s stressful for all the TA’s and is not the best way to structure things in my opinion, but I’m sure it’s set that way for bottom line, not teaching purposes. Sara is the one on the right, she is married to the Canadian owner of the Wuxi branches and happens to sit right next to me every day. She is nice and we get along very well.

This is a photo of most of our office.

 

The guy in green is Jack, my TA for a couple classes and fun to work with. The vampire on the upper right is Alex, he’s from England and sits across from me. I consider him a friend and it’s good to work with him. He leaves in February and is heading to New Zealand, where his dad recently moved. He plans to be a chef.

Here we have a couple guys from another school as The Penguin and The Joker from Batman.

This is Rachel, she’s is sort of a fixer to help the foreign teachers deal with the exhaustive red tape and beauracracy that is involved in everything here. She is quiet but funny, although her English isn’t too great.

Pollution has been awful here as of late and I’ve been told pretty much to get used to it for the winter. I can’t seem to figure out my AC remote to get the heat turned on, so until tomorrow when I can get Rachel to translate I’m stuck with a Chinese fireplace.

 

If she can’t help I’ll have to call to try to get my landlord to look at it.

Finally, this is Michael. He’s is fresh off the presses and is the son of Claire, a private student I taught twice a week and very much enjoyed until she left for maternity leave.

 

 

Dancing Grannies

I live on the 5th floor of my apartment complex, and with the cool autumn weather I keep my windows open to save a few RMB and leave the air conditioning off. Every evening directly across the street from me is a public square that sits in front of a open air shopping area and walking mall where local shops and street vendors sell everything from children’s toys to sensual massage. Like clockwork, every evening at about 5:30, the music starts.

Worldwide they are known as dancing grannies. They are not only here in China, but apparently expat Chinese from London to New York are taking over parks and parking lots, bringing this Chinese phenomenom to the world. While some people, both here and abroad, are annoyed by the loud speaker systems that accompany their nightly get-togethers, I find the whole thing deeply endearing. There are three or four generations of Chinese here that gather as a community and enjoy themselves while building trust and ties with strangers that live in and around their neighborhoods.

I have a couple videos I took, and although they are a little dark, you can see all age groups from very young children to the very frail elderly bridging generations, weaving a collective continuity and respect that I have never seen in the States. Another aspect that is simply wonderful is that the children are safe and allowed to play freely, while parents and grandparents, while present, do not have to keep constant vigil on where the young ones are. There are a few perks to living in a heavily policed state where criminals pay dearly. These parents simply do not have the same fears as American parents, which while at times justified, is mostly misguided fear driven by television sensationalism.

The first video is of the line dancing area, where mostly older women with a few younger women mixed in dance while an audience, including me, sit and watch. Little kids run and play throughout and are permitted to be children. They run, they play, they fall down and they get up. All great things that every child should be able to do. This is all done in and among strangers, but strangers who are bound as a community on the local, personal level. It really is wonderful.

My next video is an area, literally right beside the first, where couples and hopefuls dance and mingle to what to my ear is more traditional Chinese music or an occasional live act.

 

There is a third area next to the first two where the little children play and enjoy themselves on minintaure electic cars that are controlled by adults with hand held remotes, similar to bumber cars, all free presumably. I didn’t take any video here because it seemed a little creepy when I started filming other people’s children. Perhaps that is just a sad relic of my Western conditioning.

This goes on every night, and every night I walk through and relish the truly community atmosphere that I sadly haven’t seen back home.

 

The Dogs of Autumn

I have been forced to make a post about dogs. With the increasing middle-class in China, a newfound affluence has begun to change the attitudes towards dogs in China and more and more I see proud owners showcasing their companions. The one-child policy and disposable income means many Chinese are becoming dog lovers like the West, and America in particular, with parents dropping their one kid off to English lessons while they take their dog to the park. For the dogs it is pure kismet, a confluence of disposable income and a one-child policy that means a fortuitous turn of events from their past, because while beloved in the West, pets were long considered a bourgeoisie excess and a symbol of bête noire capitalist frivolity.

Well, times are changing. In celebration of our four-legged friends, I've put together a panoply of dogs large and small. I have not included the feral street dogs that languish along the food streets and down alleyways because I did not want to get close enough to get a good pic with my iPod. The pack here is just the dogs that I've seen in the past two days, I don't know if it is the pleasant weather or because of National Day, but either way the dogs have been on full display.

Here is my coffeeshop dog, grown up a little bit.

 

If you remember, she was a little thinner a few months ago.

As always, her sidekick is on patrol.

 

My Korean store now has a puppy:

Sleeping next to her tennis ball and an Angry Bird to keep her safe.

A smart vet decided to open a new shop in the neighborhood.

 

Here is a nice anonymous women resting in her storefront:

Better than a car alarm:

This Golden Retriever was beautiful. About 9 months and acted like it.

 

Not to exclude other animals, I spotted these two chickens wandering outside my apartment. This is China after all. They won't last long I'm afraid.

There are a lot more dogs around, I just chose the few that I had an easy opportunity to take pictures of. I tried to take some pictures at night, but with the flash off the “shutter speed” on the iPod is too slow and the pictures are blurry. I didn't want to blind everybody with my flash. Oh well.

iPad Breakdown

I haven’t posted in a while because I haven’t been able to. When I updated my iPad to the iOS8 I lost my ability to use my VPN because it was incompatible with the new operating system. In short, I was unable to get through The Great Firewall of China. This is just going to be a short post to see if Blogsy, the blogging app I use, works since the update. Everything has been really functioning poorly or not at all. However, I didn’t update my iPod until I was sure the iPad ran smoothly, which it didn’t. Everything seems to be straightened out now, which is a relief, for the past couple weeks I’ve been using my iPod exclusively.

This week is National Day, China’s 4th of July. My apartment entrance is rather patriotic. The security was intense for everybody.

I think the big celebrations will be tomorrow, Saturday, and I expect to have a lot of images. Like I said, this is just a test post to see if everything is up and running. Everybody has dogs lately, so I’m going to try to make a collection of all the pets. I say pets because there are a lot of street dogs I don’t want to get close to. Below these two are relaxing on the porch/street/store front for National Day.

I should post National Day pics Sunday.

 

Look, A Laowai

I’ve never felt like such a Laowai as I did last Friday when I went to an outside public school to teach a couple of English classes for some local kids. The school was about a 15 minute walk from where I teach, and it seemed to be nestled in an apartment complex and shopping compound. The school was typically quite a bit rundown, and the day was hot and sticky due to rain and 90 degree weather. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was excited and relieved to teach a new batch of students. My regular classes are the same students week in and week out, and most of the time I am more of an entertainer than a teacher, trying to keep the students engaged so the the kids will be happy and the parents will sign them up for a new semester. That’s one life lesson I have learned here. It is always better to provide a service to the person paying. Here, I’m providing a service, teaching, to the kids. The parents are paying, but they are more of a middle man. If at all possible always provide the service directly to the person paying, that way both sides expect production. In my case, the kids could really care less about English. Lesson learned, lesson learned. I’ll have to write a whole post about that. At least at the public school, where I was essentially putting on an infomercial, there was no expectation of learning since I’m only there for 40 minutes a class every 2 months.

So the school is set up in a big square with an empty courtyard where the students play. We got there about 5 minutes before the bell sounded between classes, so we were kinda just standing around waiting. Then the bell rang. About 100 students come pouring out of the classroom and straight to see me. You would have thought an alien had landed. The kids all circled around me, wanted to touch my arms and just me in general, and treated me as though I was some strange creature that landed from a distant planet. It was rather disconcerting, but I was told to expect it.

The classroom was austere and spartan. Oh yeah, it was also brutally hot and I had a couple of 40 minute infomercials to put on.

 

All of the kids were incredibly excited as I entered and started teaching. I had two teaching assistants with me, one of them being my friend Jack, who has very good English. Here is a picture of Jack and I at shane, he has his desk by me:

 

All and all I really enjoyed the lesson because the kids were fun. I really liked the class size; even if a couple of kids weren’t paying attention, so what, there are 40 others. I guess I just am tired of seeing my same kids every week, trying to find new ways to keep them entertained. With the outside locations, I won’t see these kids for 2 months. I’ll be hitting a different school every week, not at all unlike a traveling circus. The TA’s passed out a lot of brochures and hopefully the school will pick up some new students.

The school has really been advertising intensely, handing out fliers at various campuses and giving free demos like mine to several nearby locations. We foreign teachers are left out of the business side of the school, but my impression of the operation and of the neighborhood in general is that everybody is beginning to feel the effects of a slowing economy. Parents are less willing to pay for more than one semester at a time and are bargaining much harder with prices. If there are siblings taking classes together they share or copy a book, whereas I didn’t see this when I first came in. This all points to a larger issues facing the country as whole.

China’s economy is experiencing significant headwinds as it tries to transition into a more sustainable economic model. When I first got here cranes were building non stop. Now construction sites lay abandoned, with the cranes frozen as gigantic monuments to a construction boom that may have run its course. Gee, a massive construction boom backed by government loans leads to a risky and dangerous economic situation. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The historic 20 year run as the world’s factory is coming to an end, and with that will come enormous economic and social pressures.

The legitimacy of the Communist Party for the past two decades has been tied to economic growth, with the belief that the rising tide lifts all ships. Now, however, China has to take that next step in building a domestic consumer economy. Never before has such a transition happened with so many people and in as a compressed time frame like China faces. Growth is slowing and China needs to transition to a more diversified consumer based economy before it gets caught in the middle-income trap like so many hopeful states before it. There is a reason this is happening. A soft landing is the best that the world can hope for.

On an unrelated note, due to the paucity of anything in Wuxi worth seeing, I’m using my free time constructively by taking several online classes on Coursera. They are rather enjoyable, I have taken everything from Metabolism in Athletes to Creative Problem Solving. Right now I am taking a Rhetorical Writing course from Ohio State University. Papers will be peer reviewed and graded by TA’s, so I’ll actually have stuff to turn in. It sounds fun and will involve a lot of writing over the next 8-10 weeks and I’m pretty enthused about it. All free of course, I just have to get around the sensors to watch the video lectures. So is life in Red China.

Quiet Times

The summer schedule is in the rearview mirror and I have begun my slower, consistent fall schedule in earnest. It is a welcome relief from the constant teaching and planning of the summer. I suppose it’s a bit of fortune that the busiest schedule is in the summer months because the heat and humidity was unbearable, making any sort of sight seeing or travel out of the question. Fall showers have arrived, with rain occuring daily, leaving me mostly indoors for the past week or so.

China picked up on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and my friend and co-worker Alex from England decided to “give it a go” as he says. He was a good sport and the kids all thought it was funny. If you notice I was self designated camera man number three. Some moments are meant for 20 year olds, and getting a bucket of ice dumped on you at work in front of and by the students may be one of them.

The kids here in China are all registering for school and the organization leaves something to be desired. Hundreds of parents, grandparents, children and the ubiquitous mopeds all vying for prime classes and parking.

This scene was occuring all across China today, some 300,000,000 children were getting ready for the start of a new year.

 

My shopping center has various events every night, from rollerblading for the kids to climbing walls set up for adults, and this night there was an American idol style contest going on with some pretty good entrants, although the crowd was rather paltry.

 

Happily there is not much going on at the moment, although I begin teaching once a week at outside locations on Fridays, two 50 minute lessons at government schools. I watched a fellow teacher give a demo lesson this past week and I think I’m going to enjoy it. Most of these kids will be getting their first instruction ever from an actual English speaking Westerner, and if the response is anything close to what I saw, I should enjoy it. The students are just happy to have a respite from the boring and pedantic style of learning in Chinese public schools.

I’m going to try to post at least twice a week now that I have more time and will hopefully have more to talk about than teaching, which isn’t very exciting to write or read about. It’s cooling off with the arrival of Fall and I plan on exploring much more than I have been with the free time I’ll finally have. Friday or so I’ll post again, hopefully with some photos of the glorious Chinese poublic school system.

Chinese Starbucks. It was great.

 

 

 

 

Summer is Coming to an End

Well, the summer grind is almost over. This is the last week of the 2nd of back to back intensive short semesters. Three week mini-courses stacked on top of my regular schedule. One thing that I have come to learn is that things would be a whole lot easier if every class wasn’t different. By that I mean, or I assume, that academic teachers typically have at least a few courses that they teach more than once during the week. Something along the lines of writing a lesson plan that can be used for all three of your freshman history classes. This is not the case here because every student only comes once a week, with every class at a different level in order to offer a wider range of English levels to customers/parents. While great for the business model, it means I have 11 different lesson plans to write up every week. Oh well.

The heavy work load and many hours of actual teaching has been hard, but my self-assurance and proficiency in the classroom is through the roof. I simply have no nerves when I am in front of class or in front of a group of parents, and it has translated to a tremendous boost in confidence, which is further encouraged by actually successfully living and working in a city and country as foreign as Wuxi, China. Outside of my phone, which I never use, or WeChat, which I frequently use, I spend much of my time communicating in very poor Chinese, usually with the Koreans who own the local Mom & Pop stores, and I get along just fine.

Knowing my time here is limited to about a year makes this a great learning experience. I can take it all in comfortably aware of the impermanence of this sojourn, which makes the moments of difficulty or frustration bearable and beneficial. Experience is essential to finding out what is important in life. Experience forces a reorganization of what you need and don’t need as it pulls new things in and out of your intellectual and emotional ambit. Auxiliary wants and needs fade away unremembered, while the indispensable and precious intensify in their importance, adding a new, permanent vitality as I wend my way through life and living. To say that family and home is the most important thing in life is trite and sentimental, but it is also simple and true.

Here are some images I’ve tried to gather since I last posted. It has seemingly been raining everyday in this sodden state so I have only a few:

These are some of my kindergarteners. Amy is the girl, CJ is with his head down and Justin is using his pencil tube as a telescope. Justin is very hyperactive but I like him very much. All three of these are good kids with great personalities, Amy being smart and mischevious and CJ is just along for the ride. That is my TA Lori, she is by far the most amiable of the lot, in part because she is the least experienced. Regardless, I enjoy working with her, and in fact I like all the TA’s, for the most part. You can’t like everybody you work with, that’s just an axiom of life.

This is just a quick video of the corner at the end of my block. My bank, some shopping and dining are all in this area.

The image below is a shot outside one of the other Shane Schools that I went to in order to sub for another teacher. The weather map said no clouds, which gives you an idea of pollution levels that day. A teacher was on vacation so I took one of his classes. That Scotsman walking by is Ian, a fellow teacher that arrived in China the same time as me.

This was my welcoming party for my substitution gig. I am pretty sure it was for me.

This is a nice image of one of the canals in a shopping area for Chinese tourists.

And finally a view along my street on a clear and quiet night.

That’s all for now, I should be posting more often now that my very busy summer is coming to an end.