Sunday, September 30, 2007

I'll show you THE LIFE OF THE MIND!

The end of the month is - "traditionally" - the time for me to share a favourite film clip with you. This month I had particularly wanted to post the opening sequence of of Jim Jarmusch's 'Down By Law' - a wonderful montage of B&W travelling shots establishing the New Orleans location, accompanied by the great Tom Waits song 'Jockey Full of Bourbon'. A friend recently acquired this oddball classic on pirate DVD out here, and I'm so envious - it's been on my 'to look out for' list for years, but I've never found it.

However..... this doesn't appear to be available on YouTube. Or maybe it is, but I am once again suffering the annoying localised glitch/pointless censorship that limits me to a single page of search results before the site crashes.

My second choice - something I've wanted to post for a few months, but have again been struggling to find a good version of - is the climactic scene from the Coen brothers' 'Barton Fink'. I think there is a better, slightly longer version of this I've seen on YouTube, but I forgot to record the link while I was looking at it, and now I am restricted in my searching by the glitch again. This will have to do, for now at least.....

For those of you who haven't seen the film (DO!), or whose memory of it has faded, it centres on John Turturro's nerdy New York playwright who, after his first Broadway hit, is transported to Hollywood to write for the movies. Trapped in a seedy hotel and tasked with writing a script for a wrestling movie ("I don't understand this genre."), he goes gradually mad. His only 'friend' is his occasional next-door neighbour in the hotel, a gargantuan travelling salesman named Charlie Muntz (fabulous performance from John Goodman), to whom he whines incessantly about how 'the life of the mind' is all that's really important to him. Charlie, we discover, is an 'artist' of a different sort: a serial-killing psychopath - who, in his final rampage, taunts Fink with his 'life of the mind' obsession..... while the walls of the hotel corridor inexplicably dissolve into flame around him, a vision of hell on earth. A surreal image, which may well all be just be a figment of Fink's demented imagination. One of the scariest sequences I have ever seen on film, yet also darkly - very darkly - funny.

Some people just don't seem to get the Coen brothers - but I love 'em to bits.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Beginning of Time

Three weeks ago, I announced that my original intention - from the very outset of my blogging a year earlier - had been to wrap things up on September 17th. In passing, I cited the 'Mayan Calendar' (which apparently runs out on 20th December, 2012) as an example. My regular readership (we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.... well, sisters, for the most part) largely failed to notice this, or didn't take me seriously.... and were thus perplexed by my 'final' post.

However, after much rumination, I have decided to begin again.

After all, I think that's what the Mayans had in mind. I haven't been able to discover any apocalyptic myths associated with the end of their calendar. What happens on December 21st? Nothing. It's just the beginning of a new 5,025-year cycle, that's all.

Why would I begin again?

Well, I find it useful catharsis on occasion. And it's good practice for me, I think - good to be writing regularly, good to be writing something other than market reports and action plans and FYI e-mails.

I don't have any vanity about love and recognition (well, not much). It would be nice to acquire a bit more of a readership eventually, but it's not going to break me up inside if it doesn't happen. I am, however, very glad to have made some new friends through this blogging adventure - Tulsa, Leah, OMG, Moonrat. And I hope I may find a few more such in the months ahead. Perhaps I'll also make a few 'enemies' - but that's how it goes.

I just hope that in my two-week 'absence' I haven't been completely forsaken. I suppose I'll have to send out a few mass e-mailings saying, "Please come and read my blog again!" Oh dear.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Comeback haiku!

After long silence,
Deep brooding contemplation,
The hermit returns.

The question is, will anyone notice? Or care??

Saturday, September 15, 2007

More Chinese prevarication

I finally discovered the secret agenda (or one of them) of the endlessly annoying, demanding, slippery Chinese guy I had to meet with in the first half of this week. He had been pestering me - directly, and via my rather over-accommodating Chinese colleague - to give them more time, to stay longer.... but he hadn't wanted to say why. Only as I was leaving did it slip out that the local mayor was attending a formal year-opening ceremony of the university the next morning. Now, if only he'd told me...... Well, no, actually, there was no way I could have crowbarred this into my already overstuffed schedule. And these events are brain-squelchingly tedious. And this one was slated to begin at 7.15am. So.... all in all, a lucky escape for me!

But really - what is the problem here? Why can't people just come out and tell you what's on their minds??


My liaison with the second client I visited - the one that had given me all the grief about my choice of hotel - was madly chaotic about giving me credible or intelligible guidance on travel times. My paranoid side suspects this was at least partly deliberate, an attempt to manoeuvre me into staying at a hotel adjacent to the campus. But maybe it is just that she is utterly clueless about judging time (my [recently] much-maligned Chinese colleague has much the same failing).

Amongst the highlights of our fraught few days of exchanges on this topic:

Projected travelling time from 1st campus to 2nd campus -
30 mins (Actual time: 2 hours)

Projected travelling time from 2nd campus to my hotel in Wuhan -
2.5 hours (Actual time: not much over 1.5 hours, even in the height of the rush hour)

Projected travelling time from my hotel to Wuhan airport -
2 hours (Actual time: 25 minutes)

Because she had given me an estimate of 4 hours for getting from the campus to the airport, I felt I had little choice but to cancel the morning session at the University that I had originally planned. (If 4 hours is an accurate estimate, I'd like to leave at least 6 hours to allow for disastrous contingencies. And then, I'd really have to stop for lunch along the way somewhere. And - kind-hearted fellow that I am - I wouldn't want the University's driver getting home in the middle of the night, so..... basically, I wouldn't want to be setting out much later than 9 or 10 in the morning, in order to make a 5pm flight.) I ramped up the schedule for Thursday, to make our University partner feel loved and wanted and attended to; and I slotted in an extra meeting on Friday with the educational company in Wuhan which set this project up for us. So, it all worked out pretty nicely in the end. Of course, if I'd known that the drive to the airport couldn't possibly take longer than 3 hours and, with a bit of luck, only 2, well, I could have put in another full morning at the Uni, and stayed for another of their excellent boozy lunches too.

Why don't the Chinese understand the importance of planning and timing??


Returning to Slimeball Sam, the villain of the first half of this diaristic rant.... something of a cloud was cast over what was mostly a very successful and enjoyable week by the fact that Slimeball complained to my Chinese colleague that I had given him cause to worry about the likely pass rate on our course; his response to this was to threaten to withdraw about 75% of the students enrolled on the course. And of course, he did this entirely behind my back - not one hour after he had said goodbye to me all smiles, thanking me for my excellent presentations, beaming that he no longer had any doubts or worries about the course at all. Un-fucking-believable!!

I despair of trying to work with evasive, dishonest, unreliable little shitheads like this.

It probably wasn't nearly as much of a crisis as my office was painting it to be (the students were already enrolled, their fees collected, the coursebooks ordered, the teachers briefed [by me] on how to teach the course and looking forward to it enthusiastically, the college principal was strongly on our side, and additional students were coming forward to apply after my rousing promotional presentation on the previous evening - there is no fucking way Slimeball Sam could unilaterally pull the plug on our course at the last minute like that.... and I am bewildered as to why he would even discuss the possibility [well, no, not that bewildered - if this is really what he said, I must suppose that he was angling for a bribe]). My Chinese colleague, alas, has an unfortunate capacity to crank up the emotional temperature of any exchange: she somehow mirrors back - and magnifies - whatever emotion she perceives, or thinks she perceives, in her interlocutor, and this soon creates a dangerous feedback loop. This is why the simplest of my disagreements with her tend to get rapidly rather tempestous. I think it is also why - sometimes - clients come to her with a very small quibble or concern and in no time at all we get a "Sky is Falling!" newsflash.

My graver concern here is that my boss - a sales guy through and through - has this misplaced anxiety that, as the academic standards troubleshooter, I am the natural enemy of the sales team, and will be creating these sorts of problems left and right with my indiscreet remarks about how, you know, if students can't speak any English at all, you probably shouldn't admit them on to this course.

I am, in fact, extremely discreet about how I address some of these potentially troublesome issues (but address them I do; I don't believe you can just avoid them and pretend they don't exist, which does seem to have been the prevailing company culture up until now). I think we need to teach our Chinese sales people the concept of 'inoculating against criticism' - i.e. anticipating potential problems, and raising them yourself rather than waiting for the client to do so, but simultaneously outlining solutions. It is an enormously powerful sales technique which, at present, we seem to be entirely overlooking. Instead, our sales staff seem to be allowing our clients to meander along with the happy delusion that a pass on one of our courses is automatic. Alas, that is not the case. They are going to hear that from me. But I should not be the first person they're hearing it from!

Furthermore, I do not accept that there is an inevitable conflict between the maintenance of academic standards and the drive for sales growth. Our clients will only increase their student numbers if they gain a reputation for a high success rate; they will only gain a high success rate if they are extremely selective about the English ability of students admitted to the course; strict selectivity on English ability will mean that student numbers are small in the first year or two after start-up, but can grow rapidly thereafter. Alas, our partner centres don't have the patience to accept that. And neither, it seems, do we. If we pursue big numbers immediately, by relaxing or dispensing with English entry level requirements (as we seem to be constantly pressured to do), then pass rates will be abysmal and the whole business - ours and and our partners' - will go tits up (which does seem to be happening).

So..... there is a lot of tension in the workplace. It is, I fear, rather unlikely that I will be remaining long in this position. The question is: will I resign, or will I get fired? Place your bets.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The story of my week...

Leaden eyelids throb;
Brain stumbles from thought to thought.
Total exhaustion.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A 'BookBook' pledge

For the past two weeks or more I have been failing to make any appreciable progress in my current read - and have resorted to keeping up the regularity of my postings on the BookBook review blog by writing about things I read on my summer holiday.

Now, it was not a good sign that this current book was so eagerly surrendered to me by my medical chum, The Egregious Dr P (one of the world's foremost 'gas men', no less), after he had failed to hack his way through much more than a quarter of it. I think his wife had tried and failed as well.

I hope I am not falling prey to the old vanity of feeling that I have to get through the bloody thing as some kind of obscure test of mental toughness, some measure of my self-worth. I thought I'd seen off all that nonsense long ago. I actually included as one of my 7 Habits of Highly Efficient Readers some months ago (one of my better and more provocative posts, I thought - although it continues to languish in neglect) that one should not be concerned about failing to finish books. There's a reason why you don't finish them: they're not good enough to hold your attention.

I would like to think that my perseverance with this one is driven by the quality of the writing; sometimes the flow of words alone is quite exhilarating to me. Unfortunately, in this case all of this fine writing seems to foster in me the persistent delusion that something is about to happen. But I'm half-way through now, and nothing has; and I'm rather beginning to doubt it ever will. Jeez, the author spent about 40 or 50 pages near the start of the book describing his protagonist's bicycle ride home through the Dublin suburbs. And that was action-packed stuff compared to the next 50 pages.

So, I've decided: long business trip this week, many hours in planes and hotels and airports - if I can't get the bugger finished this week, I'll toss it aside. And this weekend, BookBook will be treated to an account of what I thought of however much of it I've managed to get through.

The "Chinese way of doing things" (another 'I HATE my job' moment)

In general, I have a very high regard for my Chinese colleagues in my new job. They're a very bright, hard-working and personable bunch.

But - at times - they do drive me absolutely bonkers.

There's one woman with whom I have a huge falling out practically every day. (I make up with her 3 or 4 or 5 times a day, so I think we're still doing OK over all; but I wish we didn't have to have these occasional volcanic tiffs over nothing.) She seems especially (more than the others, though none of them is immune) locked in to the classic Chinese idea that the only way you can maintain a relationship with a business client is to be grovellingly deferential at all times.

The bigwigs at one of the colleges I'm visiting this week apparently felt they should be given 'special treatment'. It wasn't enough that I was giving them 1.5 days of my valuable time, all of our usual high-quality presentations. No, they wanted their egos massaging by being promised something 'more unique'. And they wanted more time. My colleague, it appeared, was not fighting them on this. She was just passing it all on to me, and needling me to make some kind of concession. What kind of concession? Well, they weren't really sure, of course. Something of the arse-licking variety, I imagine; or at least a bit of whimpering and grovelling to make them feel important.

Now, this is a place that is so remote from an airport, and with such a limited number of flights to it, that it's a huge bleedin' effort to get there at all (my colleague tells me she often takes the train down there - oh yes, 14-hour overnight journey with no sleep, for a business trip: absolutely!). And I am combining it with another trip in the area, so timings are very tight. And I'm already working one extra day in the week (above the 3 for which I am actually contracted and paid) to accommodate all of this. So it is really not at all reasonable that my colleague should be blithely trying to insist that I fly down a day earlier so that I can give them 2 days instead of the usual 1 or 1.5 of seminars and glad-handing.

Then, to add insult to injury, our contact there phoned me repeatedly over the weekend to try to suggest small, pointless variations to the schedule. Gosh, I was nice to him about it. It's going to be a strain to keep that up if he tries it on again when I'm down there, though.

At the other place I'm visiting, I had suggested staying in a hotel in the nearest major city. Better hotel, nearer the airport. And my colleague had said it was only an hour or so from the campus. However, she told me she had concerns that the people there were mildly aggrieved that I was "spurning their hospitality", so I agreed to spend the first night at a country hotel near the campus (sound logic anyway, since I was planning on having evening meetings, and maybe making a presentation to students on the first night). Would that be conciliatory enough? Would it be OK to stay in the city hotel on my last night? Oh, yes, fine. I had a couple of e-mail exchanges with our liaison there about this at the end of last week. Another one today. I asked for confirmation that all the suggested arrangements were OK, that the city hotel wasn't too far away. Oh yes, fine, she said. Not a problem at all, she said.

Then she griped to my Chinese colleague about it behind my back. And my colleague got on my case about it. At 6pm. On a day when I was not even supposed to be working. On the day before I fly. When I had about a million and one other more important things to worry about, and was already late for dinner. I didn't lose my temper. I got very damn close, but I didn't actually lose my temper.

Apparently, these dipshits have belatedly decided that what was supposed to be a 1-hr drive to the campus might take 2 or even 2.5 hrs in the rush hour. I suspect they're exaggerating horribly, but..... I am prepared to re-jig the timetable; I am prepared to get up really early so that I can still give them a full morning on Friday; I am prepared to do just about anything to be sweet and nice and reasonable. But I am not prepared to change my hotel booking at the very last minute. My colleague says they feel they I am going "just to have fun". This is quite clearly her own interpretation of the situation rather than theirs, but..... YES!!! I'd rather stay in a comfortable hotel. Yes, I'd like to visit the Hankou waterfront for an hour or two on my last evening. Yes, I'd like to try to catch up with an old colleague who's working down there now. And it's really none of her business. Or theirs either. They've got me for at least 14 or 16 hours, spread over three days. The evenings are supposed to be my own.

And yes, of course, if my hotel's really in such an inconvenient location (I doubt it is; I think they're just lying their arses off to try to pressure me into staying a second night out in the sticks), well, I would of course have been willing to reconsider my arrangements..... if they'd asked me about it directly..... at any time when I gave them the opportunity to do so over the past week.

The "Chinese way of doing things" so often, alas, seems to mean nothing more than cowardice, evasion, and duplicity. I am sick to death of it. (And I've only been in this job 3 months.)

And my colleague, I fear, only tends to exacerbate these tendencies, to encourage her clients to become even more demanding and unreasonable by her own over-anxiousness and excessive compliance. I am going to have to try to break her of that.

Well, one of us is going to break.....

Wisdom of the '60s

"Never pick up a girl before 1pm. If she's that beautiful, what's she doing out of bed at noon?"

James Michener (1907-1997)

A great line I happened upon while recently browsing the early chapters of Michener's novel of '60s counter-culture, The Drifters. It was the first thing of his I can remember looking at, and I was surprised at how well-written it was. Alas, like all of his things, it was a daunting great doorstop of a book - I fear I've never given him a try because his stories just exceed my attention span.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

And while I'm on the subject....

Maybe the mellowness I claimed for myself this afternoon was only skin-deep.

My latent irritation with Chinese arseholedom was probably already bubbling just below the surface, because I had spent most of yesterday making arrangements for a business trip next week to one of our partner schools in Zhejiang.

My Chinese colleague who does most of the liaison with them had been getting anxious and skittish about this event all week, but she couldn't quite express what was bothering her - she would only intimate vaguely that they had "high expectations" and "might not be happy with the arrangements". Well, frankly, if that is the case, I tend to blame my Chinese colleague very largely: it's her job to manage their expectations.

Anyway, after an exchange of e-mails and a telephone conversation with our contact there, everything seemed to be OK.

Then the guy phoned me at 9.30 last night, just as the gig I'd gone to was about to start. Hello. Are these working hours? I think not. What the fuck do you think you're doing?

I contained myself. I was nice. I was polite. I was receptive. I was tolerant.

He wasn't happy with the arrangements.

He didn't like the idea of my giving the standard promotional presentation for students and the staff training that we give to everyone else. He wanted something 'special', unique, individually tailored for him.

He wasn't happy with the standard (absurdly generous, economically unviable) 1.5 days we had scheduled with him. He wanted 2 days, 3 days, a whole week. Could I arrive earlier, stay later, change the running order completely....?

He wanted to make himself feel important. He wanted to park his bike across my itinerary for the week.

I told him NO. Politely but firmly, NO. I've sent you the programme for the visit. That's it. Take it or leave it.

I can't get there any earlier, because you're in the middle of fucking nowhere (only a handful of flights a day from Beijing, none at particularly convenient times; and then it's a 2-hour drive from the aiport on bad roads..... Christ, I should have just told him we'd do the whole bloody meeting on Skype!). I can't leave any later because I have another appointment somewhere else that evening. I am working: I am working somewhere else Monday, Thursday, and Friday. You've got me on Tuesday and Wednesday - you should be fucking grateful.

This is not going to be an easy trip. The likelihood of me decking the c*** (and thereby, I suppose, losing my job - ah well, c'est la vie) is pretty high.

Sometimes, just occasionally, the Chinese really bug the crap out of me

I was having a nice, relaxed day. The sun was shining. I was feeling well-disposed towards the world at large.

And then, just as I was about to nip into my local mini-supermarket to try to pick up a can of Diet Coke, this guy cycled past me (on the sidewalk, naturally), stopped right in front of me, and then with great care and deliberation parked his bike right across the entrance to the shop (he went in himself, but pulled the bike across the opening behind him, as if consciously trying to bar access to anyone else). I was about 2ft from him, and quite obviously about to enter the shop. He looked me in the face. He knew that.

And he just completely ignored me and left his bike blocking the doorway.

Suddenly my mellow disposition evaporated. I was absolutely fucking livid. I was tempted to YELL at him. But yelling too readily leads to protracted confrontations, sometimes fights. I was tempted to hurl the bike out of the way and trample on it. There were a lot of things I could have done with the bike - anal insertion crossed my mind for a moment. Instead, I made an elaborate demonstration of reasonableness by picking it up very gently and moving it a yard or two to the right, so that it was up against a wall, not blocking anything.

The guy gave me a cold look, as if to say, "Make sure you put it back when you're finished." I think he was very close to launching into a violent exchange of words with me, but took due note of the fact that I was nearly twice as big as him and quivering with barely-suppressed rage.

The thing that gets me down about this kind of behaviour is that it is so bloody common. I always try to be wary of generalizing too much - particularly when making a negative observation on a national or ethnic group - but..... there is a prevalent trait in many of the Chinese for being complete arseholes in ridiculous, petty, pointless ways like this. It is as if they feel a need to assert their importance in the world, to affirm their imagined superiority over others by inflicting wanton inconvenience on people.

I try to be tolerant about this kind of thing. I try to understand. I try to make allowances. I am as forgiving as I can be of individuals - there are reasons why they do this. (Maybe he's short-sighted. Maybe he's a simpleton. Maybe he's having a very bad day. Maybe he wants to try to stop other people coming into the store while he's buying condoms or hair-restorer.) I try to be as forgiving as I can of the whole people - there are reasons why they are like this. (Traumas in the collective experience, kinks in the national psyche, bizarre perversions of common sense in the culture.)

Yes, yes, I am really (most of the time) very tolerant of the fact that they are like this now. But jeez, they've got to bloody well change. And fast.

A pause for thought...

Moonrat (yes, yes, always Moonrat!) 'reminded' me the other day that according to the calendars of the early South American civilizations (popularly labelled 'Mayan' calendars, although I gather it's rather more complicated than that), time is going to run out towards the end of 2012. At midnight on the 20th December, to be exact. (Although that's presumably on South American time, so it will be the afternoon of the 21st for us here in Beijing. No point buying any Christmas presents that year, I suppose.)

I had originally planned to discontinue my blogging experiment after a year. Well, a year and a day, to be exact. Well, a year and a week and a day, to be really exact (because I was going to terminate Froogville and the Barstool at the same time, and the Barstool was born a week or so later).

Today is Froogville's 1st Anniversary. Happy birthday, Froogville! After such inconsequential beginnings, I really didn't expect you to make it this far. But it had always been my intention that you wouldn't make it any further. (Call me Herod!)

So, I have another week (well, 8 or 9 days, tops; I think Barstool Blues first squalled at the world on September 16th, so a year and a day would be....) to ponder my blogging future.

Ponder, ponder, ponder.

The Book Book

One of my most fascinating commenters, Moonrat, (well, no, dear, dear commenters - you're all fascinating; but Ratty is perhaps the most intriguing, because I don't know where she came from....) a few months ago started up a collaborative blog she calls The Book Book.

It's a forum for booklovers to share reviews of their recent reads.

A brilliantly simple idea. And it seems to be gathering momentum.

I've contributed a few reviews myself (although one was just a re-working of one I'd put on here some months ago - CHEAT).

There are already several other fairly regular contributors, so there are two or three new reviews popping up every day. And very little rubbish.

Food for thought.

(Although I take issue with Moonrat's description of us as 'geeks'. I don't see anything geeky about reading, thank you very much.)

I encourage you to go and take a look. And drop Moonrat a line if you fancy becoming a contributor yourself.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Life, and how to survive without one

(Former) Arch-Commenter, Tulsa, has in recent weeks been made to appreciate the full horror of the 'being a lawyer' + 'having a Chinese employer' equation. (= NO LIFE)

At the start of the week, she promised me that she was going to be able to rejoin the social scene a little this week, because she had put in a "life request" to her boss and it had been granted.

A little later, when I queried her continued absence, she griped that the original grant had been suddenly revoked. I suggested to her that she needed to make the "life request" a "life DEMAND".

She did manage to slink away from the office by mid-evening on Friday, but was then assailed by messages from her boss asking if there was just one more thing she could finish off that night. JUST SAY NO.

Déjà who?

It's pretty standard that Beijing cabbies look nothing like the picture on the driver registration card on the dash. But the other day I found myself looking at a cabbie picture that didn't even look Chinese. No, he looked like a swarthier version of the British character actor Pete Postlethwaite.

A discombobulating moment!

I wonder if this is a variation of the odd little cognitive phenomenon I experienced after my first visit here. When I visited Wuhan and the central provinces in the Spring and early Summer of '94, I travelled around for nearly 3 months. And at that time, there were very few foreigners here. Most of the places I was visiting were Teacher Training Colleges way out in the sticks, purposefully sited away from the potentially corrupting influence of the big cities. In most of these places, I was the only foreigner the place had ever seen, apart from their foreign teachers - who were rarely more than two, and sometimes only one. (It was perhaps some measure of how used the Faculties were to having a lone token foreign teacher that the typical nickname for the lucky holder of such a position was simply laowai - "old outside-person" [the 'old' is meant to be honorific; the 'outside' is not]. When my friend Richard's mini-university was assigned two foreign English teachers by the British Council, he became lao laowai [i.e. "old old", as the more senior, and thus more deserving of respect - if only by a few years] and his colleague Toby was lumbered with the novel - and much less impressive - title of xiao laowai [little old etc.].) While travelling between these places and round about, I'd often go for a few days at a time without seeing a non-Chinese face. In all the time I was in China, I didn't meet more than about 15 foreigners. As compared to about 500,000,000 Chinese faces I'd seen.

After that, I had brief spells in Hong Kong and Singapore to ease me back into a slightly more familiar life, a slightly more diverse mix of ethnicity - but still, of course, skewed very heavily towards the Chinese. Then I hit Sydney - solidly WASP. Quite a culture shock. And for a week or so, almost everyone I met reminded me of someone. Usually some minor celebrity from film or TV. The girl who drove the airport pick-up for the hostel I stayed at, for example, looked like a younger sister of the English comedienne Josie Lawrence. And my first room-mate was the effeminately good-looking actor Rupert Everett.

It's easy enough to see how that kind of thing happens. And it soon wore off.

But if I have been here so long that I now start fancying that Chinese people are lookalikes of slightly-famous white film stars, well..... I worry about what's happening to my brain.

Weather report haiku

Clear skies' blue dazzle,
Gorgeous end to foul summer.
Beijing September.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Another tour of the archive: best posts from April-June 2007

Pick of the Archive:
Favourite Posts, April-June 2007

Maybe it's our subversive tastes in music that lead the government here to censor us?

2) Very bad things - June 26th, 2007

The darkest chapter in my life in China - the anniversary makes me gloomy.

3) GJN strikes again - June 25th, 2007

One of the very best ever of my 'weekly bon mots', courtesy of my recent find, American theatre critic and wit, George Jean Nathan.

4) Imperialism, Chinese style - 18th June, 2007

Some thoughts on Zhang Yimou's Hero.

5) Bad haircut, bad karma - 13th June, 2007

The difficulties involved in getting your hair cut in China.

6) What's behind the Third Door? - 12th June, 2007

My 'million-dollar scheme' for a new self-help therapy system.

7) Omar & me - 11th June, 2007

A favourite old joke (cartoon) recounted; still unnervingly appropriate to my irresolution in both my professional and my romantic life. (This one seemed to delight my regular commenters.)

8) Ronnie's Rocket - 9th June, 2007

One of the greatest moments in sporting history.... and I was there. 34 years later, I discover a clip on YouTube. I'm sorry - I'm a boy: I like sports. Watch the clip (and read the post) and you might begin to understand.

9) The problem with the Chinese education system - 9th June, 2007

Or one of them. One of my more ranty posts - about the ubiquity of cheating in exams here.

10) Is it SAFE? - 8th June, 2007

I facetiously compare the agony of job interviews with the dental torture scene in Marathon Man. Possibly the most personally revealing item I've ever posted!

11) 8 (More) Things You Didn't Know About Me - 2nd June, 2007

Random biographical revelations, prompted by a blog tag from Jeremiah.

12) End of the month morbidity - 30th May, 2007

One of my favourite suicide poems... and I even manage to throw in a Virginia Woolf reference.

13) On a related note... - 28th May, 2007

A marvellous joke - revealing a lot of truth about China's supposed 'economic miracle'.

14) Listlessness - 23rd May, 2007

We hadn't had a list on the blog for a while, so I borrowed an idea from cyber-pal Leah - more interesting(?) trivia about myself. And a game you all can play.

15) Loo with a view - 21st May, 2007

My favourite loo view - of Beijing's historic Bell Tower. I have a particular affection for this post because it was the one that somehow first grabbed the attention of the wonderful Moonrat and drew her into my blogging circle.

16) The Missing Gun (Xun Qiang) - 20th May, 2007

A review of my favourite Chinese film of recent years - not yet widely recognised overseas.

17) The weekly haiku - 18th May, 2007

I don't include many of my haiku in these 'best of' roundups, but..... this one I particularly like.

18) The story of my life - 15th May, 2007

A wonderfully resonant Gary Larson cartoon. As I say in the post, it's alarming how one simple gag can so aptly encapsulate the whole of my experience on this earth.

19) A fetish from long ago - 13th May, 2007

YES, my interest in gloves dates back 10 years to my doomed affair with 'The Evil One'. At least I wrote a nice poem about it.

20) An angry incident - 10th May, 2007

Another 'near death' experience on the roads prompts some observations about the standards of driving in China.

21) Sudden stopping - 9th May, 2007

I become an early-morning subway commuter again; so it is obligatory that I write a post analysing the main irritating behaviours of my fellow passengers.

22) Time stands still - 6th May, 2007

Another of my poems - one of the best things (I think) to come out of my last Great Lost Love relationship.

23) Is piracy BAD? - 29th April, 2007

One of my more serious-minded and controversial posts, challenging the notion that DVD piracy is inherently morally culpable.

24) Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead - 28th April, 2007

One of the first of my film reviews on this blog - one of Andy Garcia's best, and much overlooked/underrated.

25) WITH tears! - 27th April, 2007

A wonderfully grotesque, morbid piece of unintended humour from a Victorian reading primer.

26) Here comes the haiku - 27th April, 2007

I really don't recommend many of these... but this is a particularly sweet one.

27) Woof! - 24th April, 2007

One of my sillier (and more provocative) bits of humour: 10 Reasons Why A Dog Is Better Than A Girlfriend.

28) A Beijing street scene - 21st April, 2007

The socio-economic scene today summed up in a fleeting roadside vignette.

29) Another poem, one of my darker ones - 18th April, 2007

Dark indeed, but I like it.

30) The Three Phases - 14th April, 2007

The stages of growth in a relationship - with a lover, with a city: it's an intriguing parallel.

31) A 'Bad China Day' - 10th April, 2007

Some advice on how to cope with the difficulties of life in China - combined with some fleeting references to my worst experiences here, and some casual contempt for 'China-bloggers' in general.

32) What cartoon character are YOU? - 4th April, 2007

A fatuous personality quiz prompts an appreciation of the greatest-ever animated cartoon series.

The way I lived then....

My recent professional ponderings on salary levels and the standard of living for foreign teachers here in China got me to thinking back - oddly wistfully - to my early days in this country.

I had an archetypally dreadful Chinese employer in my first year (to whom I had been 'sold' by a more-than-archetypally dreadful recruitment agent in the UK), and was being expected to survive on a salary of 4,250 RMB per month. Back then, that was round about £350; today, with the ever-increasing strength of sterling, it would be barely £280. Now - rather mysteriously, and probably illegally - I wasn't being asked to pay any tax on that (or only a negligibly small amount; I can't quite recall now). And I was getting a small additional allowance that was supposed to cover my utilities bills (although one of the many annoying, penny-pinching sneakinesses of this college was that they contrived to calculate the monthly electricity bill on our compact two-room apartments - paid to them, rather than directly to the power company - as considerably in excess of that allowance; considerably in excess, as I now discover, of the utilities charges I run up today with an enormous three-bedroom apartment).

So, basically I had a little above or a little below 4,000kuai to spend every month. That's fairly typical: most teachers over here on their first gigs seem to get offered between 4,000 and 5,000 by the state sector and small private Chinese schools, and only slightly better from larger schools and foreign education franchises.

The problem was that I had completely exhausted my savings in the UK: I came here with nothing. Thus, to be able to afford to fly back and spend a month or two with my family the next summer, I figured I'd have to save at least 2,000 RMB per month, a full half of my pitiably small salary.

I was ruthlessly disciplined about that. Every month I set aside 2,000 RMB, and then tried to survive on slightly less than that for my living expenses. For a local, that would be a pretty good salary (heck, it would be a very good starting wage for a graduate, and considerably more than most blue-collar workers can ever expect to earn). But for foreigners, it's really hard to get by on that. We don't live as simply (we're not content to wear the same clothes 3 days in a row, for example; or to subsist for days on end on instant noodles.... well, not to the same extent that the Chinese are, anyway!). We get charged more for things (even when we get smart and savvy and ruthless about our shopping technique - we still can't live as cheaply as the locals). We want our own Internet connection, and we want to make a lot of international calls. And of course, we have our other expensive vices too (beer, cigarettes, pizza, etc.).

What would typically happen would be that I'd allow myself 2 or 3 "nights out" early in the first week or two (nothing too extravagant - just a token visit to a decent but not-too-dear Western restaurant, a few hours in a nice bar at a subsidised networking party, the cheapest seat at a classical concert), and blow most of the money by the mid-point of the month...... leaving me to limp through 10, 12, 14 days with just a few hundred renminbi. Now that really does require you to tighten your belt and live like a local.

Things got better. After my first Christmas, I started to find quite a bit of lucrative part-time work outside the college. Although I still mostly tried to set this additional income aside as 'savings', I did start allowing myself a few more of the 'treats' that had earlier been only a rare and guilty first-half-of-the-month indulgence.

I did rather enjoy that poverty-constrained existence, though. (Hell, it wasn't so different from the way I'd been living in the UK for the last few years before my departure!) The beer here - in small restaurants and streetside kiosks, anyway - is virtually free. And tiny, grungy local restaurants have far more 'character' than the swisher places. I love that life. I'm a little regretful that I have grown slightly away from it as I - and, more to the point, most of my friends - have become steadily more affluent in recent years.

Many of the habits of thrift I developed as essential to survival in those early months still persist, however. I still quite like taking a bus or the subway (unless it's in the height of the rush hour) rather than a taxi (although - heavens! - the taxis are really very cheap in this town). If it's less than a few miles, I'll usually just walk. And I much prefer sitting out on the sidewalk with a 2kuai or 3kuai Yanjing beer to paying 5 or 10 times as much for a half-size bottle of disgustingly gassy Tsingtao in a raucous 'foreigner bar'.

I'm not cheap. I just know that I still don't have that much money, and I have clear priorities about how I like to spend it.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Another plug - the Koryo boys

You might have noticed over in the sidebar there (you might have noticed if you were very observant) that, as well as putting up a link for my friend Sarah Cooper's life coaching website, I've got one for Koryo Tours.

These are the guys that I went to Pyongyang with a couple of years ago. (It was a great, great little holiday, and I'd really like to go again sometime.)

The company founder, Nick Bonner, set it up a dozen or more years ago, having made friends with some North Korean students through his football playing here in Beijing. They helped him arrange a mini-tour for himself and a few friends; and it soon grew into a nice little business. Indeed, it has now grown so much that he has had to enlist the help of fellow Brits Simon Cockerell and Hannah Barraclough to help him keep on top of things.

Nick has become an ardent and very knowledgeable Korea-phile. He's an enthusiastic collector of the DPRK's propaganda art - a hobby which he has managed to spin into another arm of his business: see

He has also become a documentary film-maker. His first film, The Game of their Lives, told the amazing story of the North Korean football team which achieved fairytale success in the 1966 World Cup in England (eliminating Italy, and taking an early 3-0 lead against Portugal, one of the tournament favourites.... although, alas, the wheels then came off, and Portugal's phenomenal striker Eusebio ensured that his team would go on to meet England in the semi-final). Nick managed to reunite the surviving members of the team and fly them back to England to relive some of their memories. It is one of the most charming and moving films about sport I've ever seen; and quite accessible, I think, even if you have no feeling for the game of football at all.

He followed that up a few years later with A State of Mind, which follows two young schoolgirls through the arduous training regime required of participants in the Arrirang 'Mass Games' performance that is staged on certain key national holidays (a colossal spectacle of synchronized marching, dancing, and gymnastics, involving tens of thousands of performers). This film shows much more of life in Pyongyang today (and a brief glimpse of the much poorer countryside as well), including many disturbing examples of how thoroughgoing the state propaganda and indoctrination is. There are moments of great warmth and humour, as well, though. I particularly love the bit where the family dinnertime of one of the girls is suddenly plunged into darkness by one of Pyongyang's still frequent powercuts, and her wizened grandfather mutters bitterly, "Bloody Americans! It's all their fault!"

The latest film venture is Crossing The Line, about two American soldiers who ran away from their posts in South Korea back in the '60s and 'defected' to the North. I haven't seen this one yet (I was disappointed to have to miss the Beijing premiere screenings while I was on holiday last month), but it was apparently very well-received at the Sundance Festival this year..... and will no doubt be coming to an arthouse cinema (or minority TV channel) near you shortly. Watch out for it.

And Koryo Tours are definitely the best people to go and visit North Korea with, if that should ever take your fancy. I do highly recommend it.

Oh, bother!!!

I had been "planning" to commemorate the spookily significant 888th blog post for the past week or so, and then....... well, somehow I botched the count, and I now discover that my little celebratory huzzah yesterday appears to have been actually No. 889. So I suppose this one, slagging off the relentless gentility of Bermuda, must have been 888.

That probably completely knocks on the head my hopes for ushering in an upturn of fortune by honouring the auspicious milestone. Oh well....

Monday, September 03, 2007

Thrice lucky!


The number of the post. If you count Froogville and the Barstool together, that is.

Another momentous landmark!

Well, for China, anyway. In the prevailing numerological superstition, 8 is deemed to be the luckiest number - so a lot of 8s together is just luck piled on luck.

I suppose 88,888,888 would be even more lucky. But in practice, three 8s is about as many as we ever get. 888 kuai is a favourite amount for a generous wedding gift or for the most expensive dish on the menu in one of those absurdly upscale abalone & shark's fin restaurants (I am aware of such places; but no, dear reader, rest assured that I would never dream of giving them my custom).

I've just had to shell out a really rather painful sum of money for the next quarter's rent, I find I've been short-changed on a training fee I've belatedly collected from before the holiday (only by a small amount, and I'm sure inadvertently - but it niggles), and I last night suffered yet another sleepless night after suffering a relapse of the bad belly that has been troubling me intermittently for the last fortnight.

I stand in need of a change of luck, I think.

I wonder what the 'Lucky Post' will usher in for the rest of the week.

The way we live now

At work, we have been pondering the problem of how our Chinese partner schools can attract and keep good teachers (without paying them a decent salary - which, of course, they don't want to do!). I have suggested that the huge variations in the local cost of living are a factor to be taken into consideration, and have asked one of my Chinese colleagues to try to root out some (reliable?) figures on this.

The impression I get from my travels is that Beijing is quite a bit cheaper than almost any of the coastal cities (or the more touristy places); only about two-thirds as expensive as Shanghai, and perhaps less than half as costly as Hong Kong. It is, however, quite a bit more expensive than places further inland like Wuhan and Chongqing; a lot more expensive than unfashionable grimeholes like Zhengzhou or Qiqihar (the latter of which is, as the Lonely Planet Guide to China observes [in one of its only good jokes], "more fun to say than to visit").

We will see what the research turns up.

I am reminded that some years ago I applied for and very nearly got a teaching job in a private school in Bermuda. In my childhood I had been mildly fascinated with the island, because an elderly neighbour of ours that I used to keep company on odd afternoons here and there, a sort of surrogate granny, had family who lived out there and was always waxing lyrical about how beautiful it was. As I grew up, the attraction waned. I recall hearing more dismissive assessments about it (particularly from an ex-Navy CPO who worked at the school where I taught, who'd visited often and not taken to it). I remember particularly the jibes that it was "the most middle-class place on earth" and "the world's biggest Country Club".

The background info provided by the headmaster of this school only served to reinforce this image. He gave me an extremely long 'cost of living guide', which he had apparently prepared himself, and which was full of items like (I swear I am not making this up!):
Green fee for a round of golf
A tailored suit
Cocktails for two
Dinner in a reasonably fashionable restaurant

There was no reference to street food or the price of a case of the local beer.

I decided it was not the place for me.

A writer's bon mot

"Writers often end up humorists if they read in public too often. Laughter is the only audible response we can elicit. The silence of the unbearably moved and that of the terminally bored are indistinguishable."

A wise warning on the dangers of public reading, from the Scots writer, Don Paterson.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

My favourite runs

A new regular feature? Perhaps, perhaps - a little game to look forward to at the beginning of each month. I've had quite a few ideas for 'list' posts lately, and this is the first of them.

It's particularly - shamingly - topical for me at the moment because I am supposed to be out on a run right now (in training for the Beijing Marathon next month - ha!), but am feeling a little too fragile after a big night out last night.

My favourite running routes

1) Stanley Park, Vancouver. An amazing park, a densely wooded peninsula projecting out into the bay, a little bit of wilderness right in the heart of the city, immediately next to the downtown area - and there's a road right around it, following the coast. Unquestionably the most beautiful circuit I've ever run anywhere.

2) Sydney, coast path, Coogee to Bondi. A very close second place. I ran this every day for a couple of weeks when I was staying in a little hostel in Coogee, a mile or so inland from the beach, during my round-the-world backpacking year in '94. It's only about 3 or 4 miles on the map, but a lot further in practice because the coastline is so twisty; and it includes a lot of hills and step-climbs; running a mile or so on the sand up and down Bondi at the turnaround point is pretty knackering too; and then I was ending with a steep uphill run back to the hostel. Probably the most demanding route I've ever run - but god, I was fit back then!

3) Central highlands, Viti Levu (Fiji). Another happy recollection from that backpacking year. I stayed for a week in a remote village in the middle of the main island, and went running every morning in the surrounding hills. There was one day when everything was blanketed in low cloud, but the ridge I was running on was just above this cloud, allowing me to look down on it; and a few hill-tops round about were also peeping through - emeralds on a bed of cotton wool.

4) Mount Vernon bike trail, Virginia. I quite often head over to the States to catch up with the many old college friends who now live there. I usually stay with a couple who have a lovely house in Alexandria Old Town, just over the river from DC. I've been going there at least once every couple of years since the early '90s - it kind of feels like a second home now. And I must have run that trail through the swamps and forests along the edge of the Potomac dozens of times. It's a pretty demanding run, with quite a few gradients - and usually fiercely humid! If I make it all the way to Mount Vernon (George Washington's country home) and back, that's about a marathon distance (I've only managed it 2 or 3 times).

5) Monnow Valley. This is my childhood home, on the Welsh border. For the last 10 years of her life my Mum lived in a cottage on the outskirts of the tiny town of Monmouth (where some years earlier I had grown up and gone to school), and whenever I was visiting I'd go on this run - about 3.5 miles to Tregate Bridge (sometimes a bit further) and back again. I still do it once in a while when I'm visiting my brother's family there. It's a narrow, fairly quiet country road through woods and farmland, skirting the edge of the flood plain of the little River Monnow. It is the hilliest route I've ever run - hardly a flat stretch on it, constant ups and downs.

6) Port Meadow, Oxford. In the early '90s I was living for a while in the Jericho area of Oxford, a Victorian industrial estate along the canal. There were several variations of my running route here that I could throw in - going further north on the streets in Oxford or following the canal path or venturing further into the country - but the basic circuit I'd most often do was to go up Walton Street, across Port Meadow, past The Perch pub, down Binsey Lane and back into town past the railway station.

7) Toronto, west from Queen's Quay along the lake. One of my frustrations with Toronto (I won a scholarship to intern with a law firm there for a year back in the late '90s) was the lack of access to the lakeshore. However, from my apartment on Queen's Quay West there was a decent jogging route going west that stuck reasonably close to the Lake. (I remember once being horribly smitten by the radiant smile of a beautiful girl who passed me going in the opposite direction on roller-blades. She was, alas, going far too fast for me to catch up with her. Bloody roller-blades! I had hoped that she might turn around and come back the same way. Or that I might see her out roller-blading that route another time [the same time next week?]. But no. Another unrequited lust!)

8) Beijing, the Houhai lakes area. My current run. Not quite as spectacular as the ones listed above - but what it lacks in magnificence of natural scenery it makes up for in human colour. It's particularly good early in the morning - it tends to get thronged with tourists later in the day - when the old folks are out doing their tai chi, or their buttock slapping (a very popular form of exercise here, honestly), or their walking backwards (ditto), or their shouting across the lake (ditto).

Frustrations of foreign poetry

I am hesitant to post this, because the translation is uncredited and I can't find out who did it. Also because I'd like to post the original (Spanish, I assume), but can't find that either. Maybe some more Googling will turn it up, but I lack the energy at the moment.

So, for now, just the English version....

Update: My blog-friend OMG has kindly provided the Spanish version for us in a comment below.

History of the Night

Throughout the course of generations
men constructed the night.
At first she was blindness;
thorns raking bare feet,
fear of wolves.
We shall never know who forged the word
for the interval of shadow
dividing the two twilights;
we shall never know in what age it came to mean
the starry hours.
Others created the myth:
they made her the mother of the unruffled Fates
that spin our destiny;
they sacrificed black ewes to her, and the cock
who crows his own death.
The Chaldeans assigned to her twelve houses.
She took shape from Latin hexameters
and the terror of Pascal.
Now we feel her to be inexhaustible
like an ancient wine
and no-one can gaze on her without vertigo
and time has charged her with eternity.

And to think that she wouldn't exist
but for those fragile instruments, the eyes.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

They always ask that question at job interviews, don't they?

I don't have any idea. I don't think I've ever had any idea. I don't want to have any idea. I live in the moment.

But enough about me. What about the rest of you? Are you fulfilled, content, focused - happy with your lot, on track with your career or life plan? Well, if you're not quite sure......

A shameless little plug here for my lovely friend, The Life Coach...... who has set up a personal consultancy in Beijing doing precisely that (i.e., 'life coaching'), and has just launched her website. She's very warm and easy-going, but also very bright and very shrewd; and she's done a lot of interesting training in the field. I'm sure she's terrific at this, and is going to help a lot of people. Maybe you could be one of them.

Please, go take a look at the website. It's called Cows From My Window (the idea being that having a nice, restful view from the place where you work is symbolic of identifying all the other things you really need to make you happy in your job and your life). I promised to give her a quick shout on here, and to put a link in the sidebar. (Not that she's going to pick up many potential clients from here, I don't suppose; not yet a while, anyway! But it's the thought that counts, yes? And you never know.....)

So, best wishes to Sarah in this new venture.

I'll probably be dropping in for a session myself sometime. In about 5 years, I expect....

Update: Sarah, alas, has left us, gone back to the UK. However, her 'life coaching' continues as before. She does most of her sessions over the phone or Skype anyway, so you can work with her from wherever you are in the world. Click on that link to her website, if you might be interested. She has a lot of good free resources on there now, including the chance to sign up to a regular newsletter.

Szechuan cookery (a brief rant)

As you might have gleaned from my haiku on this topic yesterday, I am unconvinced about the supposed marvellousness of Szechuan cooking.

It is generally very highly rated in China, perhaps the most popular of the 6 major regional cuisines (the Chinese always have to have a numbered list for everything). Its defining characteristic is the use of really ridiculous amounts of chilli.

Now, I'm not a wuss about hot food. Far from it. I like it hot. Bring it on. I can take a chilli or a curry pretty damned strong. However, these hot dishes that I like are always something more than just hot - there are other flavours going on in them as well. In most Szechuan dishes I've tried, it's just hot. Very, very, very hot - and nothing else.

In fact, apart from the chilli, the rest of the dish is usually a bit shite. One of the most common Szechuan specialities you see here in Beijing is lazi ji - chilli chicken. The chicken is in very small pieces and coarsely chopped up, full of bone fragments; then it's deep fried into oblivion, until it's crispy and dry and shrivelled and tasteless. Then they conceal it under an enormous cone of dried chillies (also uneatable). It is the most ridiculous non-event of a dish I've ever encountered. (The other big favourite is shuizhuyu, a kind of fish stew swimming in chilli oil. I've never eaten this because fish makes me puke at the best of times; but meat versions I've tried are similarly hot and greasy but otherwise tasteless.)

The local delicacy in the Szechuanese city I visited the other day (not sure if it's a province-wide thing) was a type of cured pork. "Rather like bacon fat," one of my hosts, who'd spent some time in the UK, told me.

Er, no, it WAS bacon fat. Just the fat, and nothing else. What had they done with the meat? Now, I like bacon. And I like bacon fat. But - compared to the wonderful Irish bacon on which I was brought up, for example - this just wasn't especially nice bacon fat. And throwing a few slivers of fat into a bed of some tasteless green vegetable or other does not make a dish.

If this is the best cuisine in China, then.... China's cuisine really must rate pretty low in the world rankings.

It's not, though. There are many dishes, many cooking styles in China that are far tastier than this rubbish. Guizhou food, Yunnan food, Hubei food - now these have something to be said for them....