Book Recommendation

As an English teacher I am often approached for recommendations for books.  Oddly, that is exactly why I proffer suggestions rarely and judiciously.  However, here is one I would like to shout out:  Witches of New York, by Ami McKay.

Timely, important, expansive, and (more importantly) an exciting, engaging tale told with excellent prose.  I read it in three days – it would have been shorter but some parts were so intense that I had to put it up and run outside to engage in yard work or other physical pursuits in sunlight – and now that I have finished I am heading down to my local bookstore – please, support your local bookstore – and to order McKay’s other novels.

While I love Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I find the comparison between that novel and Witches (written on its cover), to be misleading.  Certainly the similarity between a seamless blending of history and the obscure is similar, but I find McKay’s prose to be less Austenesque satire and more the rhythmic prose of Toni Morrison, though her sentences are much less complex.

Is it appropriate that I’m returning to my blog with a Book Recommendation?  I certainly feel so.  But books have always welcomed me in and made me comfortable, so perhaps this will ease my return to writing after such a long sojourn.


Classroom Culture Clashes

My students' representation of me
My students’ representation of me

As my week of Character Archetypes in World Literature continued, I continued to stumble.  Sometimes we are not even aware of what our own cultural expectations are.  Thus my trouble.  (TOK teachers of the world rejoice!)

I should have known better about my first cultural belief.  I do know better, I just wasn’t prepared when faced with a room full of students expecting brilliance from me and who eerily betray no affect on their faces, unless you look very, very closely.  Teaching can be quite unnerving at times.  But in order to convey the literary archetype of Hero’s Journey, I leave my dignity at the door and in my usual animated style tell the exciting tale of the hero on a quest!  Our hero is knight; of course in my mind that conjures up images of the European medieval paladin on a large horse with a castle in the background.  So I tell the simple tale of leaving the castle, charging up the hill to the cave to kill the fearsome dragon!  It’s a thrilling tale.  Believe me.  My storytelling is enrapturing.  But my students remain unmoved.  They may even appear confused if I read their faces closely.  So I slow down – highly difficult for me – and begin again, speaking and acting out all of the stages of the Hero’s Journey – off to kill the dragon!  By now, readers, some of you may have figured out what the problem with my story was.  But I’m too caught up in my storytelling to recognize it.

Finally, just as before, the same brave girl raises her hand and asks, “Why is he killing a dragon?”

Of course.  In China, dragons are not fearsome monsters representing evil and fear of the unknown (English teacher definition.)  They are representations of good fortune, benevolent power, and even the emperor himself.  Oh dear.  I just suggested idiocy and a potential political coup.  I’m expecting the Chinese version of SWAT to come whisk me away any day now.

Chinese SWAT might also get me on this one too:  God and soul.  How do you explain the concepts of a god and a soul to a group of people who have absolutely zero exposure to such ideas?  The word “god” does not even translate into Chinese.  When my teacher assistants – who looked at me blankly when I said the word – typed into their translation software, they received the answer “ghost.”  Not really what I was going for.   “Soul” also translated to “ghost.”    I tried explaining the idea of a spirit within us.  Nothing but crickets.  And the word “spirit” translated to “wine” and “ghost.”   Not much of an improvement.  So I tried a different approach.

“What happens to you when you die?”


“We are dead.”

And that was my dead end, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Upon reflection and a week later, several students shared that maybe they would be reincarnated or be a ghost.   Back to the ghost idea.  But I tried again with the translation.  This time the word “deity” popped up.  That was certainly an improvement.  We could work with that.  It did seem to help their understanding of the god concept.   But the closest we could come was the gods of ancient mythologies with petty human characteristics and only immortality and superpowers to set them apart.   Most students think it is silly, but at least they are understanding the basic concepts.  But a grasp on the idea of one omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God, as found in most of the world’s dominant religions, still eludes them.

In a few weeks, I think I am going to try a third approach – through metaphor.  One of my favorite things about the Chinese and their expression is their love and frequent use of metaphor.  They talk about “soft hearts” and a “winter expression.”  Fitzgerald and Hemingway would sing, just as my soul does, even though they don’t have a word for it.  So perhaps I will try that route, and attempt to convey “God” by an analogy to an emperor.  Or maybe even – gasp! –  Chairman Mao?  Am I allowed to do that?  I suppose my desperation to teach my students knows no boundaries.

* * * * *

Here are few other fun cultural/linguistic confusions for a language classroom that cause me consternation.  Imagine teaching deep analysis of English literature to students whose native language:

~ has no capital letters

~ has no gender pronouns

~ uses very little punctuation

~ does not change verbs based on tense

They have also never operated any writing software or even a computer operating system before.   And they have never typed on a keyboard before, much less a Western keyboard.  They also do not have italics for Chinese characters and therefore they do not even see the difference between italics and straight lettering in English.  When I teach how to write an essay in the US, I usually mean how to write thesis statements and complete paragraphs.  Here, the statement of “teaching how to writing an essay” is much more basic and more literal.  It is teaching how to write – how to type letters into a keyboard.  How to put words into a software program.  And while this only takes about a day to teach, watching them struggle as they continue to do it every day makes me want to scream with frustration at their agonizing pace and shout with admiration for their unflinching tenacity.  And I cannot help them because their keyboards and software programs (even Apple’s “pages”) are in Chinese!  I have, at least, learned the Chinese characters for “delete” and “add” due to this conundrum.

* * * * *

I have saved my favorite school story for last.  In the late fall, just as the weather turned bitingly cold, our school decided to have its first fire drill.  We are housed within a middle school, so we are at their mercy for the choice of when to do this miserable outdoor activity.  Apparently it is universal across the world to wait until the first wet, soggy, and freezing day of winter to remember that we should practice our escape routes.  Seriously, every fire drill I have ever experienced seems to be on the worst possible day to venture outside.   But this particular drill took it to a whole new level, not without its amusements.

In the middle of my first class, the PA system interrupts with a harsh blast to announce  – in Chinese – a fire drill.  My TA translates for me.  She continues to translate as the militant voice gives instructions about what to do.

“When the alarm sounds, first hide under your desks.  When the second alarm sounds, run for your lives.”

Wait, what?

“Is that translation correct,” I query.

She puzzles for a moment.  Then, “No.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“They say, ‘run as fast as you can.’”

Ok.   Three hundred middle school students and twenty-one teenagers all running as fast as they can down flights of stairs and outside to escape an imaginary fire.  What could possibly go wrong?

I take a moment to assure my teenage charges that they do not need to run, but rather walk in an orderly manner in such a way as to not trample all of the small children around them, even if they are annoying.

The first alarm and then the second alarm sound and we accordingly move outside, after holding back until the screaming hordes of middle schoolers have made it to the soccer pitch.   I still cannot fathom how that mass of children eventually organized itself into lines.  In fact, I have never seen people here form a line ever for anything, so it was refreshing to see that they could when their lives were at stake.

Of course their lives weren’t really at stake, not yet anyway.  However, after the drill was over, a very official-looking man addressed the school through a loudspeaker that probably caused my ears permanent damage and (again translated for me) informed us in a very official manner about how good it is to practice fire drills, how good we all were, how good our time was, and how good China is.  This would have been miserable enough given the biting wind and freezing temperatures, but in China everything is said three times.  The first time you say something in metaphor, the second time you say the same thing more directly, and the third time you say it very nicely and with a conclusion about it or at least tangentially related.  By the time all of this official information was officially conveyed, my students had started turning blue.   Above chattering teeth their eyes implored me to be allowed to return indoors.  But we were stuck and I began to fear for our lives.  How ironic to practice escape from fire only to freeze to death.  Eventually the seemingly interminable speech did actually end and we were able to “run as fast as we can” back indoors to our classrooms which respectively felt warm.  It was my first introduction to Shandong winter.  And to the reality behind the expression, “Chinese fire drill.”




I have discovered an oasis. Huangdao is a far cry the hectic chaos of Beijing, but it is still urban urban urban. Grey concrete dominates the landscape everywhere you look. It stretches into the sky with half built skyscrapers, looming cold and empty. Other complexes packed to bursting. One complex after the other. Somebody in the government or development offices has, fortunately realized this and most complexes have some sort of park in them with trees and some lovely landscaping, and always a large empty space for the older local women (and a few men) to dance every evening. However lovely these little places are for the soul, they are not quite enough for me since its’ still the stress of dealing with Chinese language, people often staring, the smells of the sewers, air pollution, and other stressors that typically come with living in a very foreign culture.

Finding a place to hibernate and rejuvenate is important when living abroad. In Kenya I joined the British country club for its gym. I hated everything about it culturally but being able to escape all of the noise and hassle kept me sane. Here I have also joined a gym for the same purpose, also to try to be able to eventually fit into any clothes they sell here (a futile effort.) But while it is certainly entertaining to attend a Zumba class in Chinese – I’ve never seen so much affect on a single Chinese face– the gym has failed to replenish my soul. Staying healthy in body and mind are top priorities for the Chinese so even the gym is packed. And because I am an object of fascination, avoiding trainers trying to explain to me (in Chinese) the “correct” ways of doing things is nearly impossible. Thus I have still been searching for my oasis. And last week I finally found it. A large gourmet coffee shop right on the bay.

So now here I sit, surrounded by muted shades of blue, comfortable chairs, relaxed wooden furniture, and outstanding coffee. I could almost forget that I’m living in China.  Ella Fitzgerald’s throaty tones add to the illusion. Today there is even a wood burning stove combating the chilly November air with both its warmth and cozy smell of smoky pine. Added bonus: watching the whitecaps dance in the bay against a stormy sky and city skyline. If only the coffee weren’t the equivalent of $8 a cup. But I have decided it is definitely worth it. While I fully support immersion into a culture when living abroad, every once in a while you need to remove yourself and recover.

Next week is Thanksgiving and I will be fully immersing myself into China. My office mate who has become very dear to me has invited me to her hometown – a smaller city apparently 7 hours away by train and not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. I’m dreadfully excited to visit her uncle’s tea house, go to the hot springs, and spend four days with a local family. (I’m less excited about sleeping on my camping mattress during that time.) Wish me luck, dear reader.


*  *  *  *  *

Last weekend we took all nineteen of our students to the town (city) of Qufu whose claim to fame is the hometown of Confucius. Perhaps the single most influential person in Chinese history, Confucius has inspired the closest thing to a pilgrimage that the Chinese seem to have. His temple is also an oasis, full of cedar trees and a sense of peace. Somehow you can feel it, even as you push through the metal detectors and gates with hundreds of other people. His temple has been added to by every emperor since his death and so it has become almost a park. Gates, statues, and trees pervade the landscape and everything is hushed. That might be due to the rule against megaphones for tour guides too. (This is the only place I have found so far that does not have multiple tour guides competing with megaphones all in the same cramped place for who can be the loudest.) One of my favorite things about the Chinese is their reverence for trees and growing things. Some of the cedar trees in the temple area are hundreds of years old and are starting to fall over. Engineers have created supporting braces to keep them propped up, and these props have been designed and made to exactly resemble other cedar trees, so the effect is completely unobtrusive and pleasant. A short walk past the required tourist shops full of sacred calligraphy items, polished balls of jade, ink stones, sculpted marble stamps, and lots and lots of local street food. We nearly lost some of our students along the way as we all paused to sample ginger sugar, glutinous rice confections, delicate wraps full of delicious sweet vinegar and peanuts. And we arrive at the graveyard that contains Confucius’ tomb.   Everything hushed; pine and cedar blanket the ground muffling even footsteps, and a person can breathe. A sense of age and history pervades, and I am impressed by its simplicity. The trunk of a cedar tree supposed planted by Confucius 2100 years ago stands off to one side, a protective gate surrounding it. I’m not sure if I believe it, but here I think almost anything could be.

His gravestone is simple – tall, rounded, with a tall hill behind it. Clearly the stone has been replaced fairly recently and I peer behind it to see a smaller, older grave stone still standing. Even that one is surely not the original, but I had to chuckle that they keep replacing them with bigger and more respectable stones. You can also leave a monetary offering for good luck in a box right in front. I remark to one of my students, “Who gets the money?” Her eyes widen at the suggestion. I have no idea, but I would love to know.

Despite the emphasis on money for good luck, I am pleasantly inspired and cheered by the visit. A brutal five hour bus ride back to Huangdao gets us home and gets me a migraine (exacerbated by sleeping one night on a Chinese non-mattress in our smoke-filled hotel.) But I feel like I have seen another important part of China. Just a quick trip to my local massage therapist (#3) and I’m right as rain and ready for another week of teaching in Huangdao.

Next week, Liaocheng.   If I don’t get a chance, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


PS There are also photos of a Buddhist temple we visited, if you’re wondering where all the shiny comes from.


Five Unexpected Benefits of Air Pollution:

  1. Sunsets contain crazy neon colors not found anywhere else in nature.
  2. Face masks come in many different styles and designer brands, so now you can accessorize!
  3. You have an excuse to try to look like Bane from Batman.
  4. No bugs nor seagulls at the beach!  Not many birds of any kind, really.
  5. Every time it rains you get a free acid peel for your face.

(Today CNN announced record breaking levels of haze in a giant cloud around Northeastern China at 57 times the recommended limit.)

Fifth of November

Remember remember the Fifth of November! In celebration of Guy Fawkes day, I thought I would write a little bit about the notion of the rebel, especially since it serendipitously came up in class today.

For the last week my Chinese students have been studying archetypes of characters in world literature. Of course, this actually means Western archetypes and literature. Many characters translate to Eastern cultures: the hero of course, the female temptress of course, the mentor, the allies, etc. But three characters boldly oppose the most fundamental Chinese sensibilities. The primary of these is the Rebel.

Westerners have a soft spot in their hearts for the rebel. The outlaw, the cowboy, the James Dean. We have romanticized this character to no end: Robin Hood, Han Solo, Captain Sparrow, the list goes on and on. Even Guy Fawkes, a man who planned the murder of hundreds of non-combatants to overthrow the government and institute violent anarchy in real life gets his own cool movie, mask, and slogan. Therefore I assigned my “coolest” boy the task of presenting this character to his ninth grade class. (Or, “Grade 9” class, because the word “ninth” is too difficult to say.) I expected Paul would love this assignment. Imagine my surprise when he defines a rebel as a bad guy who betrays the hero. “He should die.”

I have to chime in. “The two big characteristics of a rebel are he is independent and he defies authority.” I continue to explain he does not like to be controlled, he breaks the rules, and he is often on his own and not part of the group. As these concepts tumble thoughtlessly out of my mouth, I watch my students become sullen and confused. I slowly become aware that I am describing everything that fights the very core of the Chinese identity. Finally, in desperation, I blurt out, “But audiences like him. He’s sexy.”

Nothing. The only sound is the air filter uselessly blasting away.

Then one of my bravest girls raises her hand and asks, “Why is he sexy if he is alone?”

Chinese identity centers around community. I have heard different version of the order of the communities each person belongs to, but the three communities are these: your country, your city/village, your family. Usually in this order. Outside these communities a person is nothing. Everything is for the group. Food symbolizes this value at the most basic level. All food is shared from a communal bowl; there are no individual plates. Everyone contributes and everyone benefits. When a person leaves home to make their way in the world, they still send most of their earnings back to their family and village. A loner does not contribute. Therefore he has no honor and no respect. Historically, the greatest punishment is exile.

Then there is the concept of control, which makes Americans shudder. We start to finger the guns that Easterners believe we all own as we narrow our eyes suspiciously in the direction of authority. Chinese people experience a completely opposite visceral reaction. Comfort, warm fuzzies, confidence, a gentle blanket – these are their concepts of control. What scares us the most they find the most comforting. I have heard it explained like this: If someone tells you what to do, everyone knows what to do and there is no confusion. You do what you are told and then you know you are doing the right thing. And when you do the right thing then you know you are good and have honor. So you are happy and everybody is happy.
Of course, Westerners would say that the flaw in this logic is that leaders might be telling you something that is bad, not good. But that is basing logic on a different system. How do you define good and bad? By Chinese definition good is what you are told. Good is defined by the leader, not an objective or absolute esoteric idea.

Faced with this logic, I conceded defeat – the rebel is a character who creates complex feelings in his audience. But! He always comes back at the end to to help the hero (because he is sorry he betrayed him) and therefore we can like him again! He should not die! They agreed to not kill him and we moved on.

Conclusion: remember remember to always assume nothing when it comes to cultural expectations!

Exploring China!

Finally! I managed to make it out of the city a few weeks ago. This trip to Huangshan was one in a lifetime and it deserves a much longer blog. But since I am way behind in my blogging, right now I will just add a few notes and let the photos do the talking.
This was seriously one of the most amazing hikes I have ever done. And about halfway through you start quoting John Grisham – “God help us, we’re in the hands of engineers” as you peer over the sides of sheer mountain cliffs into cloud-filled abysses. And then you think, “God help us, we’re in the hands of CHINESE engineers!” and you start to lose your nerve.  Then you hit the truly scary parts where the steps at an 85 degree angle are merely cemented to the sides of these cliffs. That’s when you start to lose your lunch. But at that point it’s too late and you can’t turn around – and whose thighs could take that climb of thousands of steps at that steep grade anyway? – and so you keep going and witness some of the most breathtaking scenery ever known to man. No wonder Ang Lee shot here – every photograph is perfect.  It really does look like the Chinese ink paintings of the mountains I have always seen and wondered about.  Now I wonder how the ancients climbed those mountains without the help of cement stairs!  And I kept imagining pterodactyls flying UP at me from the misty valleys below. (I have a thing for dinosaurs.) So, enjoy the photos! It was great to get out of the city and enjoy, as one fellow traveler said, “actual Chinese nature.” Awesome, in the truest meaning of the word. IMG_1088















































Chinese Translation

Here is my favorite translation confusion so far. On my tiny little washing machine (adequate, but precariously balanced on my balcony) all of the settings are in Chinese characters. The first few times I washed my clothes, I just randomly hit buttons until it seemed to work. But now I have a translation app on my phone so I decided to see what all these settings mean.
The first three are what you would expect: 1 – “standard wash”, 2 – “fast”, etc. Then there is setting number 4 – “Elements: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire.”
What the heck am I supposed to do with that information?

So of course I tried it and now I’m hoping that the final cycle doesn’t set my jeans on fire.
It’s time to go shopping. Just an ordinary day of housework in China…

Autumn Moon Festival

Dear Reader,

What we know as the Harvest Moon in the USA is even more special in China.  This weekend – the full moon of the 8th lunar month (which is a month behind our actual calendar) is the largest full moon of the year and is designed the Autumn Moon Festival.   It is a time for appreciating your family and for (more importantly to me) moon cakes.   Moon cakes – if you get the kind with dates or nuts, and NOT durian or apple jelly – are little chunks of deliciousness shaped like golden moons.  I am going to try to stock up and use them as energy bars for when I go hiking.  But this is such a mundane matter and not truly what the festival is about.

The fairy tale goes roughly like this (according to my lovely Chinese teacher):  There was a beautiful and virtuous woman who lived with her husband.  But he desired immortality (sound familiar?).  So he went and obtained a medicine or potion that would make him live forever.  Of course, this made their home the target for thieves who broke in one night to steal the immortality medicine.  To prevent them from stealing it, the woman, Chang-E, drank the potion.  (Why she wanted to prevent them from stealing it, I am unsure.  Nobody can give me an answer on this.)  She became incredibly light and floated up into the sky.  She now lives in the moon – possibly in a Jade Palace.  But because she is the only immortal human, and her husband could not come with her, there is no love in her life and so her palace is called The Cold Palace.  And she lives there with only her jade hare for company.  And thus there is a woman and a rabbit in the moon.

The tale is sad and does not quite make sense to me, but the moonrise tonight was stunning – a perfectly round, yellow moon peeking from around a skyscraper until poof!  It was fully clear of the city skyline and shining brightly on all of us.  Parents stopped in the streets to point up, showing their children in strollers this beautiful sight.  And I thought the sight in the streets of these families all walking out together to see the moon was just as beautiful.

Settling In

I realize that one month is far too long to remain off the grid – no communication, no stories, no exciting adventures shared. But the truth is, I haven’t had any real adventures yet in China. Where I am just isn’t that exciting. And besides, I have been so busy trying to settle in to a new place, new apartment, new job, new social circle, etc that writing hasn’t made it to my list of top priorities. My sincerest apologizes, dear readers. I will attempt to rectify that slight immediately.

Perhaps settling in IS the adventure. It certainly has its moments when one attempts to move to a place with a new culture, a new system of transportation (which is appalling), and a language that has no connection to English whatsoever. So here are my adventures in moving.

First, learning how to on turn on the Hot Water. Seems simple enough. After 24 hours of traveling by international planes, all one really wants is a hot shower. Too bad. After pushing every button I could find in my new, small, Chinese apartment, I finally collapsed in tears and submitted my plane-icky body to an ice cold shower and went to bed, shivering, at midnight. Crying some more because I missed my cats, exhaustion had set in, and my bed did not seem to have a mattress. The following day – officially Day 2 – I attempted to mime to the driver who picked me up and spoke no English whatsoever, my need for hot water. Finally, I dragged him inside the apartment and pushed him into the bathroom. I cannot imagine what was going through his head; he looked terrified. However, after finally pointing to the taps and running the hot water that was not hot, he got the idea and led me to the balcony where the water heater resides six feet above the floor. My desperation to drag a complete stranger into the personal parts of my apartment paid off. One of my colleagues went for a week without hot water until they finally worked up the courage to also drag a local into their apartments.   Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Second item to cause desperation: the mattress. I must admit, I did not feel like I should drag a complete stranger into my bedroom to show him my bed. I draw the line at that. However, it would have confused him anyway, since mattresses do not exist in China. For real. Apparently about twenty years ago (from what I can gather) the government declared that soft mattresses were unhealthy and therefore everyone now just sleeps on a box – what we would call a box spring. Ow. Ow ow ow.   I am still working out how this entire country is not filled with sleep-deprived zombies. Certainly I have become one – and an incredibly cranky one since my neck and back ache and crack continually.   All the Western teachers have made finding a mattress their Number One Priority. I am hoping that the one I ordered (to be made and delivered) is delivered soon. I’m not sure how much longer I can take this and I might be forced to sleep on the grass soon.

Item three: the kitchen. If you want to eat, you have to cook. Or eat out at restaurants that do not have menus in English. Food will constitute its own blog, but in the meantime, I will just share that it has taken me four weeks to scrape together the basic accoutrement for a minorly successful kitchen. I am still hunting for a toaster oven so I can bake. They exist, but they are rather expensive and a little too bulky to manage on the bus or my bike.

Which leads to item four: transportation. Again, this will be a whole post in itself. But safe to say after walking 35 minutes to and from school each day for three weeks, I finally took matters into my own hands and bought a bike. I believe that entire day my internal mantra was, “I have a bike! I have a bike! I have a bike!”   And the freedom a bike brings has transformed my settling in process. I have also named my bike Bob.

The major items for settling in anywhere – from a cardboard box on the street to a college dorm room, to the mansion in Beverly Hills – are all the same: food, shelter, water. Oh, and toilet paper. Don’t forget the toilet paper.

My shelter is quite nice – now that it has running water – with a fabulous view of the port of Huangdao. After eating only the granola bars I stashed in my luggage for the first three days, I have finally mastered some basic foodstuffs and to navigate a few small local restaurants. And I still purchase four liters of drinking water and haul it to my apartment twice every week. Hopefully I will have a water delivery service soon.

Other than that, my photos are up in frames and I am meeting my colleagues for dinner to celebrate the Autumn Moon Festival. I still don’t have a mattress. Once I do, I can declare myself officially moved in to China.