This is the Week to Get Sick

I finished up my three week intensive teaching and everything went very well. The students really seemed to enjoy the pace of the course almost as much as I did, and now I have a five day “vacation”, which with my normal days off gives me about a week off. I would prefer the hours, but as with any employer, an aversion to overtime pay created by the extra hours for the intensive courses means we are off this week to bring down the monthly hours. I guess this was the perfect time to catch a cold, which I did. Head, nose, cough and stomach were all miserable, but the worst has peaked and the sick feeling is fading fast.

I took a couple of interesting videos, well one interesting video and one video I found amusing because I can see a product being made that I eat back home. The amusing video is of a machine that my neighborhood Korean grocer bought which makes rice crisps. It usually draws a crowd and they seem to be selling well, although I did see bags full of unsold packages upstairs, so maybe it's more to draw in customers to buy other things. They are basically tortilla sized tostadas that are made from rice flour; crispy, light and slightly sweet.

 

This next video I took of a pasta chef who was working at a street shop. I took notice because it reminded me of a segment I saw on television before I left home, which, incidentally was the last time I watched television. It was either The Food Network or Anthony Bourdain, I don't remember, the point is that they made it sound like it was an art that was rare and special to see because noodle making was fast becoming mechanized. This guy, as nice as he may be and I'm sure his family and friends love him, seemed neither rare or particularly special. This was one of the many Halal shops that are Muslim Uighur owned and very friendly. The Uighurs are an ethnic group in China that is under quite a bit of pressure right now, quite similar to Tibet, although you wouldn't know by watching or reading the Chinese press.

 

It's been very hot, humid and often raining here so I haven't taken a lot of new pictures unfortunately. That combined with my 48 hour flu means this week was a bit uneventful.

I have been taking advantage of Coursera, it's a site that provides courses on the internet from various universities that allows people like me to watch lectures, download notes and correspond with other students if you wish, as well as take quizzes and tests. Although there is no formal credit, the classes are free after all, they are very educational and offer a variety of topics. My last two courses were Exercise Physiology and the other was Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health. My current course is Learning How to Learn, which is on how the neurology of the brain learns and methods on how to improve and maintain neuroplasticity into old age. I just started today and it is very interesting. Next week I start Understanding Research: an Overview for Health Professionals, which I hope will help me be able to pick out what is good and bad research. I'm pretty good at it already, I like to read a lot on health and nutrition, particularly long term weight loss, and I often read the original research on PubMed because the popular press often misrepresents the results of a paper to generate click bait, or else it doesn't put it in the context of what the preponderance of research says. How many times have you read a headline that loudly proclaims “A New Study Says…”, but they fail to tell you it’s a small uncontrolled study that hasn’t been replicated? All to often. (I'm talking to you Dr. Oz)

Well, that's what I've been up to. I recommend just browsing the classes Coursera offers, they are free and once you register you can sign up for as many as you want, and you can interact with other people taking the course or you can just watch the lectures and be done with it. With that, I'm done with this post.

 

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First Session Presentations and a Fan

Tomorrow I have a presentation for my two intensive courses that I’ve been teaching for the past 3 weeks. The morning course is for preschoolers and it focuses on simple English words in categories such as animals, family members, shapes, directions and a few actions such as walk, run, etc. They already know the basics, but by and large this is the level where they can’t create sentences on their own and they lose attention real fast. The younger classes initially were my favorite. However, aside from three of the students that I really enjoy, probably because they are rather smart and attentive, I have grown tired of this course and I think they’re feeling that way too. They lose interest quickly at times with all the hours in class this summer and tend to bonk out.

Evidenced:

 

 

Seeing the same students for both this and their normal schedule, I am looking forward to a five day break after this Monday’s regular classes.

They are precious at times.

 

The girl on the right in yellow is Sophie, very smart and I depend on her to keep the class moving. Lorena is the little one in blue that sits down on my left. She is younger and smaller than the rest, has the cutest grin, is unbearably sweet and is unquestionably highly intelligent. Lorena also tells my TA, Season, if the other students act up when Season leaves the room to get materials. I love it because she tattles so I don’t have to. The students know, specifically the girls, that they can get away with a lot from the male foreign teachers because most of us don’t know how to deal with little girls. Yo-Yo is the one closest to me in peach you see mugging for the camera in the beginning, followed by Ella getting her face time and giggling. Both are royal pains. Spoiled and whiny, mediocre regarding most class work. Archer is the boy, he’s OK, he would probably do better with another boy in the class. I often have to get on him because he distracts himself and others. I had a hard time with his discipline at first until I decided to be really strict with him. I’ll make him sit away from the class for five minutes or whatever. When he returns he is great and learns well. Amy is the girl in green and she cries a lot, especially in the beginning of class, so I don’t know what that’s about, something perhaps at home. That’s the thing with these kids, you never know what goes on when they leave. She is smart and we have bonded a little, I spend extra time with her as well as Lorena during crafts or breaks. Emily, who is bright and knows all the material is in between Lorena and Amy. Those three on the left sitting in a row are all fun and smart along with Sophie in yellow on the right. The rest, well, sometimes you earn your money.

Along with my preschoolers in the morning I have another intensive course with an older age group in the afternoon, ages about 11-12 years old. This is my largest class at almost twenty kids and it is also far and away my most enjoyable teaching experience so far. It is very fast paced and most of the students are sharp and motivated. Now, whether or not they are intrinsically motivated I don’t know, but it is apparent they are there to learn. Like the morning class, it is 3 sessions of 40 minutes with a 10 minute break in between sessions. Mostly it consists of a condensed pronunciation and vocabulary lesson with the students getting about 30 words a day, and I really enjoy setting up team games and they have fun as well. We cover phonics, which is basically pronunciation, focusing on material that is a inconsistent at best in English. Try explaining to a kid whose written language consist of symbols for words why the word fun starts with the letter f and photo starts with the letters ph. At least they are old enough that I can be honest with them and tell them they’ll just have to suck it up and start memorizing. Suprisingly, rote memorization is such a part of their regular school they do best with the just memorize it philosophy. This method works fine until they move up a level. I have a small class of 14 year olds who can recite rules and vocabulary all day. Ask them to write four sentences in English, in their own words, about something they think is beautiful or why they enjoy something and they simply grind to a halt. Individual creativity just seems difficult for many students and from what I can tell, by asking them and some of my Chinese friends, this is typical throughout the Chinese education system.

I have been too busy to take many pictures. My highlight of the week was trekking to buy a floor fan to help deal with the unbearable heat and “fog” (we call it smog or pollution). It’s working well, hopefully with a cooler apartment I won’t have to defrost my minifridge every two weeks because it gets so damned hot. My little air conditioner is stuck in the corner of the bedroom of my little studio and struggles at best. It keeps the bed cool, which is great, but the rest of the apartment is sweltering. I know, it’s laundry day.

With the combination of poor insulation and bad layout for air flow, the living area and kitchen reach about 30 degrees Celsius with the AC on. That’s about 85F for you Americans. The floor fan works pretty well and hopefully it will cut back on my electricity bills, which were only about 120 Kwai, or $20 to start with anyways.

I expect the bill would have really jumped substantially now that summer is here. I’m told this heat will last through September at least.

Success.

That’s it for now, I”ll have a few days off starting Tuesday so I’ll explore and have a bunch of good pictures to upload.

 

A Haircut and a Pig Face

Well, I finally had to get a haircut. The days are getting too hot, I don’t care much about my hair anyways and I wanted shorter hair so I didn’t have to worry about it, and that’s what I got. I picked just one of a number of hair “salons” that line the Main Street and Food Street. There are probably ten or more on the way to Carrefour’s, I don’t know if they are all legitimate hair salons or just a front for some thing more nefarious or erotic. Either way, I picked either Lanny or Flanny Spa, I couldn’t really tell.

I must of been the first customer of the day, the place felt hot and stuffy, no AC, and the staff all looked bored and blasé by my entrance. The two sophisticates who languidly stood behind the counter waited for the strange Laowai to speak; they were both amused and spiritless at once.

Me: 多少钱? “Duōshao qián?” (How much?) Of course this was said in my flawless Mandarin.

Barber: “二十”. “Er shí ­”. (20.) Kwai

Me: OK

That’s about $3.35. Well, I sit down, grab my indefatigable personal assistant, my iPod, and pull up couple pictures that show how I would like my hair, one of them being the Avatar that graces the top of my blog, which is a picture taken while I enjoyed great burgers in Dallas, Texas with my brother, his wife and their son. How I would love one of those tasty burgers along with the conviviality of my brother’s family today. Anyways, he looks at the picture, then with no hesitation or water to moisten my hair, pulls out a pair of scissors from his utility belt that looked something like this, and went to work. Somehow with all the things he had around his waist, the only scissors he had for my hair were the plastic ones that my preschoolers were using to cut out fruits from construction paper for vocabulary practice that morning. In about two minutes he has cut all he feels he needs to, he pulls out his clippers, goes to work, and within a total of three minutes it was all over. It was so fast I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted, I honestly was not even a participant, only my hair. He gestured for me to head to the back, I assume for a shampoo, but I wasn’t sure because there were now female employees milling around clad in less than professional attire by Western standards, so you never know around here. I politely declined, pay my 20 kuai and I’m out the door, 5 minutes max.

It is the shortest my hair has ever been, but all and all I can’t say I am disappointed, I’m rather pleased. This winter when I have my beard I may just buzz it and move on. Interestingly, somebody named “N. Jolly” has already uploaded and awarded “Fave Photo” to my picture on Flickr. God only knows what that all means, but somebody is using my pic for something. Oh well, I’m here for everyone to enjoy.

I stopped by the grocery to pick up my usual such as chicken, nuts, purple sweet potatoes and yogurt, and I noticed they have rearranged things for a new section. Dried meats and fish. Here’s a little taste:

I think I’ll try some. Caveat emptor.

 

New Schedule and Streetviews

We started a new summer schedule here at Shane School tailored to take advantage of the eight weeks off for summer vacation the kids get here in China. I had a bit of trepidation in anticipation of the condensed schedule, with more class time and larger classes, which made the run-up to the start of the sessions the most stressful time here since I first started. However, if the first day is any sort of guide, my concerns were misplaced.

These courses are a pair of 3 week semesters, with a 5 day break in between. They consist of three 40 minute sessions with a 10 minute break between in the morning, followed by the same format in the afternoon, with the day finishing off with my usual preschoolers in the evening. These are MHF, then a normal weekend schedule, which means full days. It seems like a lot, but the new courses replace normal weekday courses and they all come with lesson plans and supplementary materials which makes preparation a whole lot easier. Lesson planning is one aspect of work that truly is work, it's tedious and boring, but also essential. My afternoon summer course is my largest class, about 20 kids in all, about twelve years old I would guess. That's a lot of kids to manage when they don't speak much English and I don't speak any Chinese, but a lot of stuff I do is in teams with a scoring sytem, so the threat and implementation of point reduction is a good way to get the kids to discipline themselves. If a student continues to act up it could cost the whole team, and they are all pretty competitive. Everything went smoothly for it all being my leadoff day with new classes and curriculum.

Some of my favorite foods back home are blueberries and strawberries, salmon, fajitas and pretty much any good dairy, with cheese and milk particular favorites. Well, I can't really get any of that here, so I've been trying to make due with what I can source nearby. There are plenty of dried grains such as rice and oats, as well as dried beans and lentils. Well, I'm not an inveterate consumer of rice, oats, beans or lentils; I really haven't found a way to cook them well and they aren't very exciting. Let me rephrase that. I can cook them correctly, I just haven't found a way to turn them into really enjoyable dishes with the ingredients I have here. I had to search for thirty minutes to find a sealed package of what looks like and I hope are bay leaves. They don't smell like bay leaves as I opened them at home. We'll see how it turns out, I'm making a big pot of pork and beans. Oh well, they do have good squash and purple sweet potatoes, two of my favorite foods.

Just to give you some bearings on what and where you see things, I walk out of my apartment complex gates and face a divided four lane road, bordered with bike lanes and sidewalks, spaced by grass and trees as the median. It's called Changjiang Road, for the purpose of this blog I'll call it Main Street. Across Main Street is the open area where the community dances, sings, trades and gets together in the evenings. Beyond that is a walking mall. More on that later. On my side of Main Street, if I turn left, my school is about fifty yards. If I turn right, I pass the fruit stand, the Korean grocery, several hair salons, new & second hand clothes stores and my coffeeshop. Then in about a 1/4 mile I turn right onto the “Food Street” (Xinguang Road), and about a mile down that road is the shopping center with Carrefour's, the edge of New Business District with larger buildings and what not and some more restaurants.

All the restaurants are pretty much the same, presumably because of the lack of economical, diverse, quality ingredients. If I get food to go I usually buy noodles with meat & veggies at the Muslim owned restaurants/shops, which are the best places in my opinion to buy street food. They have little signs outside (forced or voluntary?) that denote the ownership is Muslim and the food is Halal, which is akin to Kosher and said to be much cleaner than regular street food. The Muslims and Koreans are by far the friendliest store owners, welcoming and kind, so I try my best to shop at their establishments when possible. Perhaps it's simply my perception, but the local Chinese I interact with as cashiers or employees often appear rude and dismissive to Laowai.

The area behind my apartment running along Food Street, behind the restaurants, is a neighborhood for working class (really poor by Western standards) Chinese; vendors, construction laborors and service workers. The scene presented is a blend of shanties, crowded one story apartments, stalls selling everything from exposed meat to industrial chemicals, low hanging power lines, naked & dirty children in the streets…you get the picture.

I took some pictures today. Here is a video to give you an idea of the traffic on the corner of my block at about 6:30 PM. This is the corner of Main Street and Food Street, my side of both. I turn right here to the supermarket. Busy and cacophonous. Everybody honks the horn on their electric moped because the motors are silent, and the honk let's pedestrians know they are coming up on them. Very annoying.

The calm before dinner rush.

Prepping:

Think this would pass the health inspector? Notice the guy cleaning the crawfish in the background with the China tap water in back.

A little cigarette ash gives the grilled mystery meat that authentic Chinese aftertaste. It seems like every man smokes. You can smell it in stores, elevators and restrooms because there are no rules against smoking inside establishments, it must be what it was like in the States before no smoking rules went into effect. I have to say I like no smoking rules.

Typical side street.

Here is a video of the neighborhood next to Food Street, directly behind my complex. I wasn't at all scared, even though everybody stares in one of three ways: amusement, conviviality or resentment. With that said, I wouldn't walk through at night. It's palpable that some of these working class Chinese, with limited access to the outside world, see me and an undefined malice swells up. I can see it intensely in the eyes of the younger men. Certainly a small minority, but present. The kind of fear of the State that doesn't exist in the West keeps violence here minimized, I do wonder for how long. Envy coupled with impotence to State power is always a powder keg.

Not exactly The Grand Canal. You would probably die on contact. I doubt that 24' white PVC pipe running along the embankment pipes in Evian spring water.

On my way out of the neighborhood, opening up to shopping and dining.

The juxtaposition is stark, with high end shopping a hundred meters away. It occured to me most neighborhoods are very well defined in terms of economics and yet exist side by side, and they all have gated entrances coming in and out. The poor areas are gated but don't have security guards to keep people out and the gates are always open, so are they there to confine people in case of emergency?

Look what I found. Two rays of Golden sunshine just outside the entrance/exit of the locals block. Goldens are the dog here. Smart folks, the Chinese dog owners. Somebody is showing off. The one Golden was a really good looking male.

OK. I've got my groceries, left the Mall/Carrefour's, it's getting dark now and you can see how the food street that runs to the Shopping has filled up.

 

I dropped of my groceries at my apartment and decided to take some pics of the walking mall past the dancing and such across the street.

This is the walking mall once you get past everybody dancing/exercising. Not much quality shopping, but that's typical. I'm not sure you can make it out, but most of the second story neon signs and some on the first floor are massage parlors, the kind that don't just give massages, right here within a stones throw and sightline of kids singing. I didn't want to make my filming of the massage parlors obvious, so the “Massage” signs may be tough to make out.

It's really weird. I had more than one strumpet offer a massage with a “happy ending”, which for me would have probably meant phenobarbital and a nap in the gutter, sans wallet. I would have taken a closer video, but I'm sure nobody would have appreciated it. Not the pimp, prostitute or the Japanese business men who flock to these establishments. How many malls in the States have massages and prostitution one level up from an Umbro apparel store.

One last video, this is directly across from my apartment facing my building, the walking mall is behind me. This is the area where families get together.

That's it for now, when the first five day break comes here in about three weeks I might go to either Nanjing or Shanghai with a couple co-workers just to sight see. Nothing is decided, everybody is waiting to see if we even want to go after the first three weeks of a condensed schedule, so I'll just have to play it by ear. Trains go most anywhere here and are really economical, so travel expenses should be relatively low.

If I have problems with the video links I'll have to put them in the next post. Sorry, I don't know how to fix video links yet once I post. I always cross my fingers when I hit the “Publish” button that the censors haven't crushed my video.

That's all for today.

 

 

Looking Ahead to Three Busy Weeks

Well, this past week I had a couple presentations for parents so they can see what their kids have been learning, and more importantly for my classes, to see what the new teacher is like. These are really important for the school because this is where all the parents decide if they want to sign the students up for the next semester. I can tell that the TA’s are really stressed out about these presentations, which is understandable, because while foreign teachers won’t lose any money and can get a retention bonus, I think the TA’s may lose money if students and the parents aren’t happy and decide not to re-up for another semester. As for the parents, I’m not sure how much English any of them know(not much), but as long as they like what they see in the foreign teacher they will enroll in another semester. My age is an advantage in all of this because there is a respect factor for teachers and age. I am not an old man by any stretch, but I am closer to the age of the parents than I am to the kids, so the parents automatically assume I am more professional.

The weather here today has been non-stop heavy rain. This morning I had to go down to the bank with Rachel, my welfare officer, in order to set up direct deposit and bill pay so I don’t have take a bus around town to pay utilities in person. Rachel then had to go to the police station for further registration for me. So much time is put in getting the foreign experts(that would be me) registered here in China that it seems to me that it’s cost prohibitive to fire or lose a foreign employee once a business has them settled. All of the TA’s at work take on English pseudonyms. Next to me in the teachers office is a Chinese girl called Sara who does all the paperwork for current and potential teachers, she spends all day getting passports, permits and a variety other beauracratic obstacles taken care of, and that is all she does. It seems like such a waste of time.

This Thursday starts a three week intensive course, which means extra work and extra pay. I’ve done most of my lesson plans for this week, but I’m still going to be busy, which I don’t mind, but I’m sure I’ll feel differently after 3 weeks. At that point we have 5 days off, then another 3 weeks intensive, then another 5 days off before our fall semester starts. I have an inkling the teachers will all be ready for it to be over, not to mention the students. Their summer is rather grueling because this is when the state school is light or off completely, but the parents see it as a chance to hit their English study intensely. Summer vacation in China sounds like fun, huh. To be honest, I’m not sure how useful the level of English they acquire is given that even the TA’s have fairly poor English themselves, but it’s as mandatory as taking math or history. There are supposedly 300 million Chinese studying English. As far as I can tell, at least in Wuxi, they lose whatever they learned within weeks of leaving school and not practicing the language. Anyways, once September rolls around the workload lightens, and while we still have guaranteed hours payed, the schedule will be much easier. This is when some other teachers and I plan on checking out the surrounding areas, such as Lake Tai or a giant Buddha I keep hearing about. I’ll have a load of pictures to post and hopefully some interesting sights to talk about, I promise.

 

Presentation for Parents and What I Miss So Far

Sunday at school I had parents come in to my kindergarten class and watch me teach for about 40 minutes. I was suprisingly sanguine, I guess it was because the kids probably know more English than the parents, which meant as long as I looked good and the kids liked me, then I was fine. The class went smoothly, the only hitch was a particular student that has a tough time concentrating and could probably use some pharmaceutical assistance. He simply cannot sit down and pay attention, which kind of made me a sympathetic figure in that I have to teach class with this maniac. I tend to ignore him on most days so he doesn’t rob the other kids, but today I had to feign concern because his mother was right there. The setup was such that all the kids sat in an arc in front of me in their little chairs, meanwhile the parents and grandparents sat behind them watching intently. If the students weren’t quick to participate, which the weren’t since they didn’t want their parents to see them get a wrong answer, the parents sharply said something in Chinese that loosely translated into any language “Answer the question!” It went well, the manager said there was no problem and I’ll get a full review on Thursday at work.

Here are some pictures of my immediate neighborhood, with the fruit stand and small grocery that I visit most days. The grocery store is owned by a Korean family, with what I believe is the mother or mother-in-law running a fruit stand next door.

That slightly blurry women is the owner of the store, and as you can see in the back there is a small meat counter. Not shown is a reach-in deep freeze with various frozen seafood items and a produce refrigerator with some essentials such as bell peppers, onion, cucumbers and what have you. The Korean shops are the best because the food is not Chinese sourced, its imported from Korea with Korean lettering, however for canned items the only thing that is immediately recognizable is Spam. This is the afore mentioned fruit stand, the little lady that runs it watches action films dubbed in what I believe is Chinese on a little TV in the corner of her stall.

Since no small shops have signs with prices, I know I was getting Laowai (foreigner) prices when I first began shopping. My prices have slowly gone down, so hopefully they are beginning to assimilate me. The fruit is very good and they have fresh produce and some basic cuts of meats inside. They sell the best kimchee I’ve ever had, and while my experience is limited, the stuff in the states doesn’t come close.

There are of course some items that cannot be purchased easily or affordably here, such as protein powder which I like for convenience, and there is no decent yogurt or cheese or quality beef and seafood worth mentioning. What do you take for granted that would be immediately missed if you lost access? Not big things like family or health care, I mean stuff like particular foods, conveniences or entertainment. A few things come to mind for me. First is the amazing variety and affordability that our supermarkets provide us with in America. I miss stuff like my 10 pound bag of frozen blueberries, in retrospect an amazing variety of cheeses, meats and fish, all available without concern that it is safe to eat. I miss being able to jump in a car and pick up most anything, clean air to breath and water out of the tap that is safe to drink. Cable TV is nice and watching sports, but it seems my teams do best when I can’t watch them. Being able to order food and get what you thought you ordered, which is difficult here because if you can speak English you are not going to be serving in a restaurant. Oh, and I cannot forget a clothes dryer. Not so much the convenience of not having to hang clothes, that is really no big deal. No, the big thing with the dryer is that it gives you softness and fluffiness that hang drying doesn’t, and today I wore my last remaing shirt that had that dryer softness from back home. Nothing left but hang dry stiffness. This isn’t to bemoan my condition here, I certainly am not going without. It is simply a reminder that a lot of little things are taken for granted back home. So the next time you dry off with a soft towel or order a pound of Boar’s Head havarti cheese from the deli or want to tell the waiter medium-rare, remember they are all under apprecited luxuries, however small.