Monday, December 31, 2007

Starry, starry night

We don't often look up at the sky here in Beijing.

There's not a lot of point, because usually it's obscured behind a curtain of toxic haze.

But tonight, on the way home from New Year revels, I looked up. And it is an unusually clear night. Just the lift to the spirits that we need at the beginning of the year.

"Oh my god, it's full of stars."

A Happy New Year to all!

Many thanks for reading my blog(s) this year - I hope (assume) you have been at least occasionally entertained by them. I hope you'll keep coming back for more in 2008 (and introduce a few of your friends).

Through a strange combination of circumstances, my other blog, Round-The-World Barstool Blues, usually much less prolific than dear old Froogville here, has been having an exceptionally active month. It has been vying neck-and-neck with its big brother - and occasionally inching ahead - in number of posts for the last 4 weeks; and I have decided, in a spirit of seasonal generosity, to allow it to end the month in the lead..... with 60 posts to Froogville's 59. I doubt if this will ever happen again. (One of my New Year's Resolutions is to rein in my blogging activity significantly! But, of course, I've made such promises before..... Well, we shall see.)

My best wishes to all of you for a splendid 2008!

1,000 Convicts

...... pretending to be zombies........

Incredible, but true.

My thanks to Leah for alerting me to this oddball delight - although it seems we both come somewhat late to the party. Apparently, this video of Filipino prisoners performing Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' dance routine has been quite the sensation of YouTube since it was first posted 5 months ago, and has recently been featured on a number of American TV shows. Time Magazine, I learn, has just rated it No. 5 in its list of the year's 'Top 10 Most Popular Viral Videos' (Damn, what are the others?? Got to go check out that list!). On YouTube, it has already drawn more than twice as many hits as Michael's original video of the song!

We have one Byron F. Garcia to thank for this. He works with the Philippines government as an adviser on prison security, and a year or so ago he had the idea of developing a new exercise regime for inmates, based on dancing to pop hits. The scheme - implemented at the Cebu Provincial Detention & Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) - was an immediate success, and quickly became famous throughout the country (they've even had the surviving housemates from the Philippines 'Big Brother' show bussed in [blindfolded] to perform a dance routine with the prisoners as their 'challenge' for the day - worth checking out because the girls are very cute).

Now, my first thought when I saw this was that it must be a spoof, a fake. But no, it appears to be genuine. Then I had qualms about the power-dynamics of it - are these prisoners being forced to take part against their will? (I very much doubt if such a programme could succeed in my native England, a nation of notoriously reluctant dancers.) The hours of practice required must get pretty gruelling; and it would be a hugely embarrassing activity for anyone as self-conscious as I am. I have qualms too about the economics of it - the prison is now earning money by allowing tour groups in to view these mass-choreographed performances.

On the other hand, I suppose it's a lot less exploitative and demeaning than sending these guys out to work on road gangs. And they do seem to be having a whale of a time doing these dance numbers. Perhaps Byron really has come up with an idea of genius here, an exercise programme that is fun, and that gives the prisoners a sense of pride and achievement - something that could be truly rehabilitative. How long before we see this kind of thing in prison exercise yards all over the world??

Byron's posted over 20 videos of his prisoners doing their thing now: 'Radio GaGa' is pretty good, too, but 'Thriller' is the classic. My New Year gift to my loyal readers. [I've posted a video for you to enjoy over on the Barstool today as well - go check it out.]

A New Year's bon mot

"Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit. "

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Year-End Roundup - 10 Favourite Moments Of 2007

It's been a packed year: a year packed with more bad than good, probably; but at the year's close, I feel a need to be positive in my reflections - so here are 10 of the memories from this year that bring the warmest glow to my heart.

1) 'Liberating' some bicycle-sledges for a brisk circuit of the nearby frozen lakes in the wee small hours of New Year's morning.

2) Being snowed on - late in the season, at the beginning of March - coming home from the 'after-party' of the infamous Bob Marley Party at my pad..... and receiving a very sweet (though disappointingly non-sexual!) goodnight kiss from one of my great failed crushes of the year.

3) Discovering the Pool Bar - my new 'second home' this year.

4) Being introduced to the Jianghu courtyard bar - one of the great finds of the year, and scene of many, many happy evenings since.

5) Staying up all night with best drinking buddy, The Choirboy, on the eve of the Mayday holiday..... drinking cheap beers at a sidewalk cafe.... that eventually converted into a breakfast bar.

6) Attending an awesomely good gig by my favourite local musician, Xiao He, out at a great new performance space in the Dashanzi art district.

7) The first visit to this blog of the lovely-and-talented Moonrat, most interesting of my new blogfriends and commenters (lured to this site by a photograph taken from a toilet - she has still not explained how this came to be!!).

8) A birthday treat for my visiting friend (and occasional commenter), Caren, along with her fiancé and a few others of my friends - pigging out on Yunnan food under an open summer sky, in a charming courtyard restaurant near my apartment.

9) Walking on the beach at Portobello in a dazzling dawn - after an all-night session of drinking, theatre-going, and more drinking in Edinburgh this August.... with my delightful new friend 'WeasleyBurrow'.

10) And finally....... the funniest line I've heard all year: my lovely lady friend, The Life Coach, told me recently that she once dumped a man "because he would keep ordering the chicken". That just cracked me up! (And after hearing the full story, I could quite understand her objection: unimaginative eating choices are such a passion-killer.)

There you have it, readers - that was my year. Not such a bad one, after all.

Let's hope that 2008 will have many more such moments for all of us.

[This, by the way, was Froogville's 750th post. Gasp of amazement! It seems No. 1,000 could be upon us before we know it.....]

Saturday, December 29, 2007


I have been keeping my head under the duvet most of this week, deliberately avoiding reading the news - and particularly any news there might have been about the scarily horrible air quality we've been suffering in Beijing for the past few days. But Leah wouldn't leave me be - she yanked my ostrich-head out of the sand, and slapped this alarming little report (from the online version of That's Beijing magazine, via the essential China news anthology site, Danwei) in front of me.

I believe there's been quite a bit of debate about the measurement of the Air Pollution Index (API) in China. [A year or so ago, I was helping out a Shanghai-based journalist with some research for an article on concerns about air pollution in regard the annual Beijing Marathon; but I don't have all the links any more - go and look for yourself.] I think it's suggested that there are certain types of particulate pollution that they don't count at all here but which are counted in most other countries' API, as well as more general doubts about whether local measurements are sometimes deliberately doctored to make them seem slightly less horrendous.

Leaving such doubts about the comparability - or the honesty - of Chinese API figures aside, the received wisdom from environmental experts is that an API rating of 80-100 is where things start getting worrying. And Beijing tries very hard - by a variety of means, both fair and foul - to keep its numbers below this on a certain number of days of the year. Not very many days. Most of the time in this smoky, dusty city, it's there or thereabouts. Often quite a bit higher. Sometimes up above 150. Occasionally even sneaking above 200.

You lucky people back home really have no conception what this is like. Unless you live downtown in a big city, you've probably never encountered an API level above 100 in your life. Most residents of Europe and North America probably start getting all snuffly and hypochondriacal and complaining if they have to suffer a level much above 50.

100 is bad. 200 is seriously unpleasant. 300 is almost unheard of. It's a real danger threshold, a point at which there ought to be public health warnings urging people to stay indoors.

What was Beijing's API on Thursday, December 27th this year? 200? 250? 300??

No. 421.


That's a real Doomsday scenario - spectral horsemen in the sky, scaly beasts rising from the oceans, that kind of thing. "For heaven's sake, keep your children inside or they'll get cancer!"

Were there, in fact, any public health warnings issued on this most poisonous of days? No.

Everyone I know who went to work that day, got sick. I only went out for a few hours in the evening, and I got sick.

The skies are clear again today, thank god. But I fear that these last few days may have done long-term damage to my lungs. We are all taking years off our lives by living here, I know it.

Immediate Update:
Leah has a nice piece on her blog (having done some of the research I couldn't be bothered to!) about comparative API levels in the States and the composition of the pollution here in Beijing. Apparently, yesterday Beijing's API went off the scale (500+)! I'm a little sceptical about that, because it seemed to have cleared up a lot by mid-morning.... but early, when I took this picture, yes, it was pretty grim.

Friday, December 28, 2007

A period of recovery

The weather has been so vile for the past few days, and I was so worn out by a long run of very late nights, that I didn't set foot outside the apartment at all on Boxing Day, or for most of yesterday.

As I stepped out for dinner with The Chairman yesterday evening, I realised that I had just spent a little over 42 straight hours holed up in Froog Towers. And I'd probably spent nearly half of that time sleeping (not always the best quality sleep, but still...); probably more than half of that time in bed.

Oh well, I guess I needed it.

A beige Christmas

The view out of my living room window this morning.

It has been unseasonally mild all week - quite the warmest Christmas I can remember here. Heck, I walked home in my shirtsleeves on Christmas night (OK, I am an Arctic Gnome, largely impervious to the cold, but..... it really wasn't that bad). According to Weather Underground, it has been getting down well below freezing in the wee small hours (something between 5 and 10 degrees F below), but for the most of the day - and the night - it has been just a degree or two under or over. On Christmas Day, it got up to a positively balmly 10 degrees above.

I noticed when I went out to dinner last night that water recently thrown on the sidewalk had not yet frozen, and indeed that some standing puddles appeared to have melted during the day. There was a fair covering of ice on the moat near my apartment at the start of the week, but that all seems to have melted again in the last few days. I haven't had a chance to check if there's still ice on the lakes, but I'm pretty sure it won't be strong enough to support skating yet (one of the more charming features of the Beijing winter).

Oh, I suppose we shouldn't complain of mild weather. It's turned quite a bit chillier again today, and we had a half-hearted fall of snow (more sleet than snow, really) last night. It wouldn't be so bad if we'd had some clear blue skies and sunshine. Christmas Day wasn't bad, but the whole of the rest of the week we've been blanketed in damp air. And there's so much pollution here - coal smoke (there are still a lot of coal-burning stoves in Beijing, especially in the old hutong districts near where I live), smoke from rubbish burning (which still happens on street corners much of the time), car exhaust fumes, dust from all the construction sites - that it turns the air beige. I kid you not. You can get some sense of it in the picture above, but it's much worse in real life. I don't know quite where it's getting this colour, but the particles of whatever-it-is are so thick in the moist air that they've been accumulating on the roofs of parked cars and building up into a fine layer of silt - as if they'd been doused by one of our periodic showers of muddy rain (but until last night, there'd been no actual precipitation for quite some time). We have in fact been blessed with cloudless skies most of the week; we just haven't been able to see them because of this choking brown mist. There was a full moon a couple of nights ago, but all we could discern from the smoggy streets of Beijing was a featureless pale disc of smudged ochre.

This smothering of the light is thoroughly depressing. And the smoke-filled air scours your throat, producing an almost continual cough. One of my excuses for frequent imbibing of White Russian cocktails this week has been that it is necessary medicine.

Damn, I hope things clear up again soon. This is the most prolonged, most intense spell of unbreathable air I can remember in my 5 years here.

An illustrated haiku for the year's end

Fast food detritus;
Instant noodles, lazy living.
Plastic fork forest.

Oh, I used to have far more than this! Over three years in this pad I had accumulated dozens and dozens of these little disposable forks that you get inside bowls of instant noodles. I had a bit of a clean-out a while ago. I am a terrible hoarder - I always think that these things are going to come in handy one day for a picnic or something.

The only thing I can say in my defence is that instant noodles in China are much better than the dreaded 'Pot Noodle' we are used to back in the UK. Here it's big business - a pretty much obligatory accompaniment to long train journeys, a regular standby for single people everywhere, a huge component in the diet of most poor students. You get a solid portion and a wide range of flavours. And the flavour isn't just a packet of dried powder, as it is back home: you also get one mini-packet of desiccated vegetable shreds (not much, but just enough to give the suggestion of there being actually something a little more than just carbohydrate to this fare - there are even a few tiny chunks of reconstituted meat usually) and another of flavouring paste (usually heavy on animal fat and chilli...... I'm not sure that I've ever found a purely vegetarian variety. Does such a thing exist? Leah? Leah?).

But yes, I was a little ashamed when I realised how dense my 'fork forest' had grown - it was damning evidence of how indolent my bachelor lifestyle has become, how rarely I can be bothered to cook myself a proper meal any more.

Perhaps my New Year's Resolution will be to try to initiate monthly dinner parties at my place. This has been a dream of mine ever since I moved in here, but the obstacles have been so many - acquiring decent cutlery, crockery, a tablecloth, enough chairs. I'm still working on the logistics three years on.... Maybe this year, maybe.....

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Chairman strikes again!

Another Tony The Chairman's 'Gem of the Day'........

(In reference to 'Music & Lyrics', the film he gave me on DVD as a Christmas present)

Chairman: "Hugh Grant's wonderful in it. I really think he's underrated, you know. I think he's right up there with Cary Grant."

Me: "What? As one of the great one-dimensional actors, you mean?"

Chairman: "Well, yes. But that one dimension's got such depth to it."

Education in China

Out of the mouths of babes and Chairmen....

Last night, my pal The Chairman was making excuses for having to go home early, not drinking too much (naturally, he went home late, after drinking a lot):

"I have to work tomorrow. I have to finish writing the end-of-term exam. And then I have to give my students the answers."


What he meant was that he had to work out what the answers were (he has somehow landed himself a job teaching A-Level 'Business Studies', a subject with which he is barely conversant), and perhaps write up some model examples for use in post-exam review...... rather than that he would he have to pre-prep his charges to assist them in their almost inevitable cheating. But the latter is, sadly, a pretty common phenomenon here.

Music & Lyrics

I was suffering rather a dearth of Christmas presents this year. The three friends who've fairly regularly remembered me for the last few years (and several others who've done so at least occasionally) all seem to have decided that I'm on Santa's 'Naughty' list this year. Sigh.

But my good pal Tony 'The Chairman' took pity on me the other week, when making impulsive pirate DVD purchases in a local bar, and got this film for me as a Christmas present. It was my only one this year - so I wrapped it for myself (Yes, I'm that sad!). And I watched it when I got home from our Christmas Day bar crawl, a little after midnight.

He had praised it rather extravagantly, but.... well, perhaps it was just the fact that I was four-sheets-to-the-wind on White Russians, but I felt that it actually lived up to those inflated expectations. I have something of a weakness for rom-coms; and this is about the best one I've seen in a decade or more. I don't think it quite steps up to the next level of being a great film (like 'When Harry Met Sally', for example, or 'Annie Hall'), but it is a great, great rom-com.

Oh, sure, it's a very thin premise (washed-up '80s pop icon gets a chance to revive his career by penning a new song for the Britneyalike sensation-of-the-moment, has to get help writing the words for it from the kooky-but-brilliant girl who turns up to water his plants one day).... but it works. And it follows the bog-standard formula of boy meets girl/boy charms girl/boy sleeps with girl/boy behaves like a complete arse/boy has to make extravagant gesture to win girl back.... but it works.

It relies very heavily on the charm of its principals - but Hugh Grant (sarcastic-but-vulnerable) and Drew Barrymore (goofy-ditsy-vulnerable) are two of the most irresistibly charming actors around today, and they have great chemistry together here. But as well as this, there's some great satire on pop culture (particularly the VH1 music TV channel - the end credits use a nice pastiche of the 'Pop-Up Video' series), including several effective parodies of '80s and '00s pop songs. The film begins with the video for Grant's biggest hit (circa 1989), a soppy, boppy Wham!-style slab of cheese which - exactly like Wham! - irritates the hell out of you at first..... but lodges irrevocably in your brain the second time you hear it. And the 'Britney' songs are just jaw-droppingly tasteless - an excellent piss-take.

The script in general is very, very sharp. There's not much elaboration of character, but it's chock-full of great lines - Hugh must have loved this script: he hardly gets to open his mouth without saying something witty.

"I have amazing insight. I'd use it on myself, but I don't have any problems."

"Did anyone see 'Battle of the 80s Has-Beens' last night? That Debbie Gibson - she can take a punch, huh?"


Monday, December 24, 2007

Ho, ho, ho!

A final dose of seasonal jollity for you.

I may take a break from posting for a few days now..... perhaps experiment with having a life instead. You should try it too.

Jollymerry..... Halle Berry......

Token schmaltzy moment

Just in case you've been missing out on the spirit of Christmas a bit this year (and lord knows, you'll find little enough of it on my blogs most of the time - bah, humbug!)..... I thought some of you might like this rather charming story about a lonely old lady 'adopted' by teachers and kids from a nearby school (I found it on a blog recently recommended for the quality of its writing by the very wonderful Moonrat). I defy even the most curmudgeonly of you not to get a little warm feeling somewhere inside your torso on reading this.

Best wishes of the season to you all!!

(And, having experienced your token schmaltzy moment, you may now return to your usual curmudging - telling 4-year-olds Santa is in prison this year, pouring iced water on carol singers' heads, kicking Tiny Tim's crutches away, etc.....)

A bon mot for the holidays

"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter."

E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)

I mentioned Cummings over on the Barstool the other day, and that prompted me to go rooting around for some more stuff of his I could use on here. This is a great line, but I'm not sure if it's from one of the poems.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A sexy holiday treat: My Fantasy Girlfriend - Diana Darvey

The delectable Diana was probably the first flesh-and-blood woman that I fell in lust with (after I'd got over my puppet gang-bang with the Spectrum Angels, that is). For 2 or 3 years in the mid-70s she was the Principal Crumpet on the notorious Benny Hill Show.

She wasn't then - and isn't now - at all my usual type, physically. Blonde hair and a full bosom don't have much of a hold on me. Honestly!! However, she had something........

Diana was much more than just the usual non-speaking eye-candy on the show; she was a very smart and talented lady who sang songs and acted opposite Benny in his skits - virtually a co-star for a while. Theatre was in her blood (her mum had been a chorus girl at the famous Windmill Theatre in London), and she'd been on the stage since she was a teenager. She spent several years performing in cabaret revues in Spain before Benny "discovered" her in a Madrid nightclub and brought her back to England to appear on TV with him. She could sing and dance well, was a decent comedy performer, and spoke Spanish (and French, and a little bit of German and Italian, too, I think) fluently, and with a good accent. And, of course, she was smokin' hot! Her sudden disappearance from the show was one of the great mysteries and disappointments of my childhood.

I have learned that she also designed her own costumes for the show (I'd always assumed that Benny himself - the lecher supreme - had been behind them). Those phenomenal backless (and often virtually frontless) dresses of hers were etched on my pre-pubescent mind.

Sadly, Diana died a few years ago, while still only in her 50s.

At present, there are only two clips of her on YouTube. Perhaps more will be posted eventually; she appeared with Benny numerous times, and on quite a few other British TV shows of the period as well.

For now, here is one of her biggest musical numbers from The Benny Hill Show (possibly the only time he allowed her to perform straight, without having some of his comedy shtick going on in the background) - a medley based around the Frank Sinatra classic, 'Travelling'. Ah, this takes me back....

Chinese people LOVE me! (12)

"Chinese people love me because..... I sometimes sing as I walk home at night."

I'm not fond of singing, in general, and don't reckon I have much of a voice. However, I have developed a habit of venting my occasional feelings of elation (I am classically bi-polar) with a song here and there, particularly as a pleasing distraction to 'shorten' the walk home from wherever I've been drinking of an evening. I am particularly besotted with my immediate neighbourhood, and the characterful hutong side-streets that I so often detour down - and so my special 'theme song' here in China has become 'The Street Where You Live' from My Fair Lady.

Any Chinese who happen to witness this solitary midnight crooning of mine always seem to be tremendously amused by it. Though I am inclined to think that they welcome any such corroboration of the common national prejudice that all foreigners are crazy - rather than appreciating the singing itself or the exuberant good spirits it demonstrates.

Note that I am doing my best to get into some 'Holiday Spirit' here.....



I admit it. I have a problem with this sweet. Rectangular blocks of softly chewy, fruit-flavoured, mouth-watering scrumptiousness. They give such an intense citrus hit, it can only be engineered by the use of the most vile E-numbered chemicals - but I don't care: I just can't get enough of them.

I try not to eat a whole packet of them one after the other. I try to make each one last as long as I can. I try not to play the game of seeing how many I can fit in my mouth at one time. Mostly, I fail with each of these resolutions. I disgust myself - but I am hooked.

I suspect (dependency-forming chemical additives aside) that it is largely a nostalgia-driven thing. To my mind, they taste exactly like Fruitellas - which were one of my favourite treats from the Pick'n'Mix sweet counter at my local Woolworth's when I was a child. Fruitellas, oddly enough, are still available (well, they're available here in China; I don't think I've ever seen them anywhere else) - though now sold in tubes (like Opal Fruits), rather than loose. I don't know if my memory is completely up the spout, or if my perceptions are somehow being conditioned by the packaging, but it seems to me as if these modern Fruitellas taste like Opal Fruits (Opal Fruits, that is, back in the days when they were Opal Fruits; of course, now that they've been rebranded as Starburst, they just don't taste as good to me); I like them, but they're not the classic Fruitellas of old. Hi-Chews are.... or very nearly so.

Hi-Chews match the taste, consistency, and saliva-promoting intensity of the old Fruitellas pretty well - but they are a different shape and significantly bigger. However, my mouth is also much bigger than it was when I was a boy - hence the fascination, I think, with revisiting that childhood obsession with discovering how many it would take to fill one's mouth.

I am starting to regain some control in my life on this point. I am now limiting myself to one packet a month. One or two packets a month....

All right, I'll stop now. I'm sorry. I'm sure it must be the holiday season that brings on this flood of nostalgia.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Yet another sign that you were about to get fired

My lovely friend The Life Coach sent me a job ad last Thursday (the day after I got canned), something she'd picked up on a Beijing Internet forum she uses. It was an ad for my job! (This she had not realised; she was passing on what she thought might be a useful suggestion for a next job.)

Perhaps it had only been posted on that very day. Perhaps. But I rather doubt it. No, I think the bastards must have been looking for my replacement at least a few days before they actually bothered to tell me I was cut.

Signs that you were about to get fired

I haven't yet been shut out of my old work e-mail account (maybe I should remind them to do it??), so I was having a noodle around on it this afternoon, idly catching up on a couple of administrative circulars that I hadn't had the time to pay attention to before.

A few weeks back, there was a new 'organisational chart' of my department circulated. Sure enough - I wasn't on it!

A waiting-for-Christmassy weather haiku

Chill day, opaque sky,
That certain smell in the air -
A promise of snow?

Maybe? Probably just wishful thinking on my part. I've only just dragged myself out of bed at noon, and haven't been outside yet. But it looks like it might be one of those skies...... We have in fact had a White Christmas (well, a Grey Christmas!) just about every year I've been in Beijing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Seasonal Chinglish!

One of my (former) work colleagues has just sent me an e-mail wishing me.....
Happy Charismas!

I love that!

(Is she suggesting that I don't have enough charisma?? Is she suggesting that I have a multiple personality disorder [even though each of my individual personalities is happy and charismatic]?? It's impossible to say. But I extend the wish to all my readers....)

Happy Charismas to all of you!!

I am a Penguin

'Tis the season..... for silly personality quizzes.

Tulsa has kicked things off by unearthing this one, which seeks to match you with your representative animal.

I was reminded of a variation on this 'animal metaphor' game I was introduced to many years ago, where you are asked which animal you think of yourself as.... then you're told you can't have that one, and you must produce a second choice.... and then a third. I think the idea is supposed to be that the first animal chosen is your idealized version of yourself, the second is how others tend to see you, and the third is closest to your 'true self'. I chose eagle, racehorse, and....... CAT! What would you choose?

Anyhow, according to this quiz of Tulsa's, I am a penguin. Or a dog. Or just possibly a beaver? Are the results always this wishy-washy, I wonder, or were my answers unusually erratic?? Of these three, I definitely prefer penguin. I recognised an immediate affinity with a penguin called Misha, the lugubrious, enigmatic centrepiece of the Ukrainian novel Death and the Penguin which I read recently (though the book itself wasn't very good).

Tulsa suggested I take the quiz again today. No, no, no - I want to be a penguin. I'm sure most of the other animals are pretty crappy. I don't want a second dip! Oh, all right then..... I am pretty sure I gave exactly the same answers, but got a completely different set of results (Owl? Sheep??!!) - so I wonder if there isn't an element of randomizing going on in the program.

Some of you may recall that this time last year - according to this quiz on the divertingly bizarre Rum & Monkey website - I discovered I 'was' Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria!

Curiously enough, I just re-took that one - with, as I thought, substantially different answers..... and came out as Ludwig again. What is it about me and Ludwig??

Anyway, the thing about penguins is:

Genera and species: Aptenodytes patagonica
Collective Term: A colony of penguins

Now you see it, now you don't. Aggressive yet gentle, outgoing but shy, stable yet flighty - everyone sees the penguin in a different way. It's that black and white thing - the penguin only reveals the side that it wants to you to see. So, whether you like this darling-devil or not, you have to concede that it's a fascinating and enigmatic individual.

For penguins are birds condemned to live out their days on the ground. Unable to fly, their excess energy has no outlet save their creative talents and emotional outbursts. Penguins are poetic, artistic, and intellectually gifted, and as writers, penguins have no equal. But, if unable to channel their impulses in a positive way, the resulting turmoil proves damaging to their relationships and careers.

With a natural aptitude for languages, penguin personalities dominate the world of publishing as writers, editors and journalists. A strong sense of drama draws them to the theater and cinema, although unlike typical bird personalities, they avoid the spotlight unless they're able to hide behind the characters they play. Once on stage however, they prove to be excellent performers with their multifaceted personalities conveying the full gamut of emotions.

However, a lack of confidence affects their work and penguins tend to give up too easily. So work never dominates their lives and they always put their families first. Those intimate with their penguin personality are impressed by their unswerving loyalty. They are sentimental at heart and always remember anniversaries and the birthdays of nieces and nephews. With a strong compassion for others, they place their family's needs ahead of their own but often end up being taken advantage of.

In matters of the heart, penguins connect poorly with other bird personalities who look down on them because of their terrestrial connections. Mammalian personalities also treat them with suspicion too, finding them to be flighty and unpredictable.

Since penguins have the coldest feet in the animal kingdom, it's no surprise that within its conflicted bosom there beats the warmest heart of all. Unfortunately, most of us will never experience this gentle compassion, for penguins ration their love only to family and close friends.

Careers and Hobbies :

Writer, Herbalist, Journalist,
Actor, Designer, Waiter

Gambling, Board Games, Reading, Family time

Famous Penguins: Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, Danny Devito

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A new poem

A recent jotting, perhaps not 'finished' yet.

Although the situation it describes probably is. There is only so long you can go on daydreaming about a woman who appears completely unaware of, and/or uninterested in, the possibility of your love. And I think one year may be long enough!

'Casual' readers of the blog may perhaps be confused. This is a love (non-)story that has played out more over on my 'love & drinking' alter ego of a blog, Barstool Blues (for example, in this post, albeit very obliquely), than here...... and more in the comments than the posts themselves. I am nothing if not discreet! That may be my trouble.

Tea with Madame X

I feared my love was obvious
It filled the room like sunshine
Perhaps too warm, too dazzling
I was showing my love too freely, clumsily
Letting it flow out of me in all directions
Spilling across the table towards her
I was too obvious, I thought, too simple
But if I'd had tactics, they were forgotten
In her presence
I lost myself in the details of her
Her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her laugh
I felt my love was obvious
But she managed to ignore it
Or swept it aside, as a minor irritation
Much as she absently dabbed with a napkin
At the stray crumbs of cake on the tablecloth
She smiled and thanked me and left
The café still warm with sunshine
But in another hour or so
It would be dusk

Chinese people LOVE me! (11)

"Chinese people love me because..... I can eat spicy food."

As I have ranted before, Chinese food tends not to be long on sophistication, on subtlety of flavour. There seem to be no herbs, and very few spices in the cuisine. Apart from sugar and vinegar and just occasionally a little bit of star anise, the only flavourings are: garlic (which here tends to be hot rather than garlicky); ginger (hot); Szechuan peppercorns (mind-blowingly, tongue-numbingly hot); dried chilli; chilli flakes; chilli paste; chilli oil; chilli, chilli, chilli, and more chilli.

And yet Chinese wait staff will often query a foreigner's choice of dish, asking the supplementary question, "La de ma?" ("With chilli?") I don't know if this is out of genuine concern for our well-being or whether they just like to tease us. It's not a very pertinent question when the dish concerned doesn't really have anything going on in it except the chilli. And the fact is that, with the exception of the asbestos-intestined people of Szechuan and Chongqing, most Chinese are pretty wussy about hot spices. They little appreciate that we laowai, brought up on the eye-watering delights of Thai, Tex-Mex, and Indian food, can pretty much wipe the floor with them when it comes to a how-hot-can-you-take-it pissing competition.

As with the whole chopsticks thing, it's sometimes fun to be able to impress people so easily. But most of the time, it's just rather wearing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A holiday bon mot

"A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours."

J.B. Priestley (1894-1984)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A child's view of the world

I am currently getting a bit bogged down in a book (Only Children, by Alison Lurie) which attempts to describe the world as perceived through the imagination of young children. I am finding it less than wholly successful: this world-view grates when sustained for too long; and there's too much adult sophistication intruding into the make-believe games of the children; for me, the authorial persona lacks authenticity, and even consistency. It's one of those books where I'm thinking I may abandon it before the end....

So, I was particularly pleased, therefore, to turn up during my Internet meanderings this afternoon this more successful piece with a vaguely similar conceit.

You begin

You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
this is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.

This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.

This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.

Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table.
Your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.

This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round, not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end.
This is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.

Margaret Atwood (1939- )

Conspiracy Theory No. 666 - The Evil Bastard Employers Fight Back (?)

The impetus for yesterday's extended recollection about my miserable first year in Beijing came from my discovery (I haven't been taken off the internal e-mailing network at the office yet..... perhaps they'll forget to do it altogether unless I remind them?) that the EBEs - the stupendously horrible private college I worked for then - are being cultivated as a new potential partner for my most recent employer, the British education company; indeed, they were due to send an EB delegation into the office on Friday for a big glad-handing session.

A curious coincidence. It does make you wonder whether there might not be some connection between my unexpected, unexplained, and brutally immediate sacking and this putative new business deal. If the EBEs had learnt that I was involved with the company (nay, would be the person responsible for 'accrediting' them as one of our teaching centres - or refusing their accreditation, as the case may have been), I don't think they would have been very happy! But could they actually have wielded that unhappiness to lobby for my dismissal?? I wouldn't really have thought so, but...... some pretty strange things of that nature happen in China.

Then again, maybe they're not so Evil and Bastardly any more. My main grievance was against the vicious old ratbag who used to run their 'International Department' - but she got the boot (I'd like to think it was at least partly my doing) the following year. It might have been rather fun to renew my acquaintance with the rest of them 4 years on.....

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The 'Evil Bastard Employers' - a case study

The EBEs were my first employer in China - a large (and supposedly prestigious) private college based in Beijing.

I very nearly left them after just a couple of weeks. After 6 or 7 weeks, during the October National Holiday, I was offered a job at a different school by a charming new Irish friend (on twice the money!)..... and turned it down only because I was so enjoying the location of the EBEs' then campus, right in the heart of the city, only a few minutes' stroll from the famous old Bell Tower.

The EBEs were the archetypal bad China employer (and then some), the kind of people you occasionally read about in the papers back home: dishonest, bullying, penny-pinching, disorganized, incompetent, corrupt, completely devoid of any concern either for their students or their teachers - an ethical black hole.

Amongst my complaints against them:

1) They grossly inflated our utilities charges, just so that they could claw back a little more of our salary from us (already at minimum wage levels anyway!).

2) They began the year by "inadvertently" levying on us the unpaid utilities charges from the summer and the end of the previous school year - a sum that amounted in some cases to more than half of our meagre first month's salaries. They admitted the "mistake" immediately, but it took us weeks of browbeating before they would refund us the money.

3) They refused to go to the trouble or expense of replacing one teacher who was desperately ill - miserable, dysfunctional - with schizophrenia. They even hired her back for a second year, although it must have been quite obvious what kind of problems she was having (the students complained about her constantly, and had nicknamed her Girl Who Talks To Herself). I know, it seems incredible: but they really did let down the students, let down her teaching colleagues, let down the girl herself, just to save themselves the one month's salary agency fee for finding a new teacher.

4) Although our original contracts had specified that our airfares would be refunded as soon as we arrived, they refused to do so - because they were afraid that we would all leave as soon as they did. Eventually we prevailed on them to refund half at the beginning of the year and half at the end. When they finally refunded the second half, they insisted on using the more favourable exchange rate from the beginning of the year rather than the then current one. 'Penny-pinching' barely even begins to cover it!

5) Just before Christmas, I let them know that I really needed to go home urgently for a family funeral. I didn't tell them it was my Mum, but I did make it clear it was important. Going home wouldn't have been a problem for me, since I already had an open-return air ticket. However, I really wanted to come back and complete my contracted teaching year with them (not for the employers' sake, of course, but for my own personal sense of honour, and out of loyalty to my students). I had no money at all (a situation not helped by the fact that they had been consistently under-paying me for 3 months); therefore, I asked them if they would refund the rest of my airfare immediately, so that I would be able to come back after the funeral. They refused point blank. I guess they just didn't trust me to return for the second half of the year. Fair enough - but even so, you'd think they might have shown some trace of human compassion for my situation. Wouldn't you? No - they didn't give a damn.

6) The programme I was working on was a "2+2" bachelor's degree (2 years of foundation study in China, 2 years to complete the degree at a UK University). The EBEs had told our students that their acceptance for the final two years of study at the UK partner University was guaranteed. In fact, the University had set quite tough qualifying requirements, which many of the students were unlikely to meet. It was also cautious about how the programme would pan out, so had set an absolute cap of 15 student admissions in the first year. We had just over 40 students enrolled on the programme. The EBEs' approach to this problem was to carry on lying through their teeth to the students and their parents right up until the moment at the end of the year when the University's offer letters were received, and more than half of the students were to be disappointed. (We - well, I - had at least managed to persuade the University to accept all the students who'd met their original requirements: about 20. And we did manage to find other - lower-ranked - Universities who were willing to take the rest. But it was an anxious time, and there was understandably a lot of bitterness from the students.)

7) The EBEs' approach to this problem vis-a-vis the University was to fake all the marks for the degree programme elements being taken in China (one of my British teaching colleagues was happily colluding in this; although the University was pretty culpable too, in that there wasn't any meaningful monitoring of the programme's delivery in China - not even any moderation of the centre-marked exams!). This didn't actually do any good at all, however, because they had failed to take note of the required 'pass marks' in the first year of study, and had already submitted 'fail' results for around half of the students for the modules taken in that year. Dishonest and incompetent - I told you so.

8) When the college was closed down two months early that year by the SARS outbreak in Beijing, the EBEs thought they had better not inform the UK partner Universities of this. They were thinking quite seriously that they would be 'shamed' by such a revelation, and that it would be much better for all concerned if they just pretended that everything was still going along normally...... and manufactured all the results for the final exams. I eventually persuaded them that the Universities would be quite understanding, and in the circumstances would accept an online exam administered by e-mail. (Well, I persuaded them of that after I'd gone behind their backs to inform the Universities of the situation - I hadn't really been left with any choice.)

9) The UK visa applications the students had prepared - under the EBEs' direction - were largely incomplete, inadequate, particularly on the crucial areas of proof of parents' employment and financial means (I had made friends with the head of the Visa Department at an Embassy party, and had arranged for him to give me a thorough briefing on the procedures). I managed to get most of these gaps filled in (although, by this time, the students had all gone back to their home towns because of SARS), but many of the applications were still in pretty rocky shape. When I went along with one of the Chinese administrators to deliver the applications to the Consulate, he insisted that I stay in the taxi rather than accompany him. I reluctantly agreed, but..... I was able to see that he did not go inside to the visa office at all but met a Chinese guy outside the building to hand the applications over..... along with an envelope that was, I'm quite sure, stuffed with cash. Such is 'the Chinese way' - why bother to take the trouble to do something right, when you can just bribe someone instead? On this occasion, it seemed to work.

10) The following year, I learned that their entire batch of visa applications - something like 80 or so kids seeking to study in the UK - was rejected. The EBEs had managed to get themselves 'blacklisted'. I'm not sure if this was down to the previous year's bribery, or some other irregularity (using 'visa agents' to provide fake documentation about employment and bank details is quite a common problem here). Fortunately, the kids were able to re-apply individually and most of them were eventually successful.

11) When a second of my colleagues succumbed to mental health problems, they sacked him (at least Girl Who Talks To Herself had kept showing up to classes, even if she rarely managed to do anything that might be described as teaching; this guy kept on taking long runs of 'sick days'). This was done extremely abruptly, without following any kind of proper disciplinary procedure or making any attempt to deal sympathetically with his difficulties, to make sure that he could get back home. No, they left him penniless, ill and miserable, out on the streets with no return air-ticket and a visa that was about to expire. He showed up on my door on the eve of the May holiday, a gibbering wreck. My pal The Chairman and I took it in turns to look after him over the long holiday weekend, until the British Consulate re-opened and we were able to persuade them to arrange an emergency repatriation. (I had contacted the guy's parents, but they had washed their hands of him - apparently it was at least the fourth or fifth time that he'd broken down in the middle of an overseas teaching gig and had to fly home [a fact that was quite apparent from his ragged CV; but that had evidently been of no concern to the EBEs, or to the unscrupulous British recruitment agent who found most of their teachers for them], and they couldn't afford to keep bailing him out any more.)

12) When two of my other English colleagues decided that they'd had enough of the lying and bullying and chaotic administration, and made plans to go home early, they were subjected to a very unpleasant campaign of intimidation (to try to 'persuade' them to change their minds!) - including a rather ham-fisted attempt to steal their passports, an attempt to extort a large 'breach of contract' payment out of them, and a threat that they would be arrested at the airport if they tried to leave the country.

13) The EBEs also attempted to extort additional fees from their students by refusing to release their qualifications to them. In particular, they had a bunch of former students who'd recently completed Master's degrees in the UK. There had been some kind of arrangement - I think, fairly informal - that these students would show their gratitude to the EBEs, for giving them access to these qualifications, by returning to work for them afterwards - for an indefinite period of time, on a cripplingly low salary: a kind of slave labour, in effect. When some of them grew disillusioned with these conditions and tried to quit, the EBEs tried to bully them by refusing to release their degree certificates to them. (Note to UK Universities - please don't try to save money by distributing certificates to students via a Chinese education institution: it's asking for trouble.)

14) The EBEs also tried to avoid paying us our final month or two's salary (during the SARS period), despite a government edict that 'foreign experts' like us were to have their contracts for the year honoured in full. They actually tried to claim that the bank's security guards were refusing to deliver the payroll because of fears about the disease. Another one of those lies that's so transparent, you wonder why they bother. I'd seen some money being delivered in the morning, so I went along to the finance office after lunch - and found them counting out a huge wedge of cash for one of the 'knitting ladies' (there was a whole room full of old ladies who did no work at all, they just sat around chatting and drinking tea and knitting all day long; and yet, they were on the payroll - some sort of Communist-era 'work unit' pension scheme, I gather). I demanded - and got! - my outstanding pay. It took a while; I had to phone as many of the other teachers as I could "for back-up". The knitting lady looked rather crestfallen that our money was being taken out of 'her' wedge (obviously a lump sum payment for all the knitters). Happy times!!

15) The following year, the EBEs were forced to do a midnight flit from one of their supplementary campuses, out of town. It seems they'd never actually paid any rent since they moved into the premises 6 months before (Was it incompetence or penny-pinching dishonesty this time? It's impossible to guess!), and the landlord lost patience with them and cut off the power. For a while, they were trying to operate their small city-centre campus with 3 times the number of students and teachers it was really capable of accommodating.

Oh, I could go on. These are just the juiciest stories that come immediately to mind. I had thought I'd be able to put a lid on it at 8 or 10, but look how I've run on already.

And the really sad thing about all of this is that, as I have learned from the subsequent 5 years in China, this kind of thing is not at all uncommon. In fact, it is depressingly standard: Chinese employers (especially in teaching institutions) are almost universally SHITE.

That's the reason I've never stayed in a job here for more than a year. It's the reason why I have tried to get out of teaching altogether. It's the reason why I felt distinctly less than comfortable in my last job, working for a UK education company as the liaison with Chinese partner schools and Universities. (Ugh, Universities! Don't get me started - that's a whole other rant all of its own.)

You may well ask why I bother to stay here at all! I often ask myself that same question. I suppose the answer is that the idealist in me still believes that some of these shite things can be changed....

Friday, December 14, 2007

Messy break-ups

OK, this is definitely the last time I shall mention getting sacked two days ago. After this one I promise to stop obsessing about it. (Or, at any rate, to stop writing obsessively about it.)

It has been occurring to me that there are certain parallels between being dumped from a job and being dumped by a lover.

For example, in both cases you'd generally rather be the dumper than the dumpee, because it gives you a sense of control. Even if the relationship/job was utterly unsatisfactory, and you were glad to be rid of it, you'd probably rather have had the opportunity to walk out (yes, flounce out, even) than be told it was over by the other party.

And even if, objectively, it's no great loss, that's not how it feels at the time: there is an emotional impact that surprises you with its intensity.

Partly, I think it's disorientation - the sudden removal of what has been a major structural component of your life for some weeks or months or years leaves you confused, destabilised, floundering. The patterns of your life, habits that had become cosy and familiar (even if there was nothing very satisfying in them per se), are uprooted at a single stroke.

There's a disappointment of future expectations too. You've worked through things you'd like to do in your imagination; you may even have started making firm and detailed plans for some of them. To have all of that suddenly whisked away from you is a bitter blow.

I think that is where I am suffering particularly at the moment. I had made a commitment to this job for a one-year minimum. I had anticipated, in fact, that I would stick with it until at least this time next year. I thought they had made a similarly long-term commitment to me. And I had begun to imagine in some detail how I would like to develop the job, what I would like to achieve in it. Also, I confess, I had foolishly allowed myself to start making financial calculations based around it (the pay wasn't very good, but at least I was able to save most of it - and some of it was being paid back in the UK). I find it hugely frustrating - infuriating - to have all of those plans thwarted like this.

Although I was less than wholly enthused about the company, or about certain of my workmates, I had become dangerously emotionally invested in the job itself. I was starting to build some close relationships with certain of the partner teaching centres, starting to make progress in helping them to improve their administration and their teaching, was becoming cautiously optimistic about actually achieving some worthwhile results for the poor bloody students at the end of this year. All my babies.......

And then, of course, there is the raging sense of injustice. Not only has this firing not been well handled in terms of its timing and delivery, but there was just no good reason for it. How often have you felt that about the end of a love affair? You're always tempted to argue the issue, to try to persuade the other party to change their mind..... but it's never going to work, and you're probably only going to piss them off...... and jeopardise whatever chance there might be of maintaining a friendly - or at least civil - relationship in the future.

And yes, perhaps too there is the element of assault on the ego. I like to think I have a pretty robust ego: such assaults are not likely to induce any crises of self-doubt in me. But even the strongest ego is sensitive to pain; and to be told that you are not loved or appreciated (where you thought you were) is one of the worst wounds the tender ego can suffer.

And, well, I say no crises of self-doubt, but.... when you lose something or someone you care about, when the ending of a relationship is not entirely of your choosing, it's impossible not to ask yourself, "What did I do wrong?" And this is a particularly troubling question for me, both in the sphere of my working life and in my romantic relationships. Because I have been a complete disaster in both. I have fairly rarely found a job I was genuinely excited about. I have very little confidence in applying for jobs, because my ratio of success over the years is vanishingly small. Even on the few occasions when I have come close to landing a 'dream job', Fate has intervened somehow to thwart my prospects. And when I have been in a job, I've just about never managed to keep it for more than 6 months. And it's exactly the same with women.

Really. I kid you not - the parallel is uncanny!

Whereas I seem to be able to inspire a huge amount of affection and respect in my friends or former students and even, I think, in most of my work colleagues (even, indeed, in some people that I know only as e-penpals or blog-readers), I signally fail to do this with employers.... or women that I am attracted to. Why, oh why??

Wisdom of the studio

The oddball tapescripts we have to record to aid Chinese students in their English listening practice include lots of weird tidbits from the 'cutting edge' of scientific research. Today, for example, I learned the strange but chillingly plausible news that "educated men have more trouble sleeping than uneducated men".

Oh yes, there was quite a long dialogue on this fascinating topic. When it moved on to discussing gender difference in this matter, though, it all got a bit silly: apparently educated women sleep like logs, because they are happy with their earning power - and confident of finding themselves a wealthy husband, to boot. Hmmmm........

Quite promising for a 'controversy of the week', eh??

Haiku time

Face like sandpaper,
A shadow of self-neglect.
Three-day stubble.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The secret of a great firing

At no notice at all. In the middle of winter. At a time of year when I have no prospect of finding any other work for at least three months. On the day of the office Christmas party. When I've just bought the boss his 'Secret Santa' Christmas present. On the anniversary of my worst-ever romantic break-up. In a week full of other bad anniversaries. In a week when I was probably going to be cripplingly depressed anyway. Just as SAD is starting to take hold. Just when the weather is turning viciously cold.

Quite remarkable, really. I didn't realise they did villainy like this any more!

It's cold outside......

The sum of all the wisdom I have learned

When the girl you like does not like you..... when the job you (are starting to) like does not like you..... when the world you like does not like you......

Don't take it personally.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bummer! 6 reasons I'm not completely convinced about the virtue of losing my job

1) It was - some of the time, anyway - quite interesting, varied, and challenging work.

2) It gave me stability of income. (Something I've never really enjoyed in my entire life before!)

3) I was about to get a British health insurance package through it. (I've never had proper health insurance since I came to China!)

4) The business is - just maybe - about to take off in a big way in China. It would have been quite exciting to play a part in that.

5) They were providing my visa for me. (So, I now might well have to leave the country, at next-to-no notice, to get a new one.)

6) There will be NOTHING happening in any of the various freelance markets I like to operate in until the other side of the Chinese New Year..... i.e., I am facing about 3 months of enforced idleness and zero income. Not good.

Consolations: 12 reasons I'm better off without that job

1) The pay was lousy.

I mean, really insulting. Most of the old college buddies I discussed it with during the summer were guestimating I'd be on up to 6 or 8 times as much. OK, some of them are completely out of touch with reality (that's why I love you, Dr P), but...... I learned at that time that the average starting salary for a graduate in the UK these days is well in excess even of what my salary would have been on a full-time basis, nearly twice what I was actually making for my 3 (or so) days a week. I know 'local hires' always get screwed, but really - for someone of my experience, and with the huge responsibilities of the role (with a crucial 'business development' dimension in a key new market: the whole of East Asia!), it was a pretty bloody contemptuously paltry remuneration. And significantly less than I had been earning from my bits-and-pieces of freelancing earlier in the year. From the financial point of view, it should be quite easy to say good riddance!

2) My immediate 'line manager' bugged the crap out of me.

Not that they were a bad person, or bad at their job particularly (non-ideal in some ways, but not at all terrible) - it was just a personality-grate:
their accent/tone of voice/manner/opinions/decisions invariably acted upon my psyche as the scraping of fingernails down a blackboard.

3) It was office-based.

Offices and I do not get along. I hated my desk, my computer, my chair, the neon strip-lights, the tinted windows, the fact that I could fail to notice what the weather was like outside for the entire fucking day.....

4) It was a 'teamwork' culture.

And I am, I confess, ultimately more of a 'loner'. Oh, I'm also 'a people person'. I like to get along with co-workers. And I enjoy co-operating with them one-to-one..... when it's actually necessary, and when we actually get something done. But having to put in half a day of "please" and "thank you" and fucking ego-massage every time you need to send an e-mail? Christ! No thank you.

5) It involved a lot of business travel.

And business travel is never much fun. In China in particular, it can easily degenerate into a slice of hell-on-earth. Better off without all of that.

6) Our Chinese partners are all dipshits.

Really. ALL of them. There's a spectrum, of course: it runs from "shouldn't trust these people as far as I can spit" to "nice, bright, sincere, enthusiastic people - who haven't got a fucking clue what they're doing". In a good-natured parting meeting with the boss this morning, I shared with him this little riddle, a bitterly jesting observation of many teachers I know who've spent more than a couple of years here: "What's wrong with the education business in China?" "Everything!"

7) It required a rush-hour commute into the CBD by Subway.

That's not fun in any city in the world. In Beijing...... it saps the will to live.

8) It was a long working day.

We were supposed to be in before 9am every day - just to set a good example to our Chinese staff (most of whom don't show up until at least 9.30 or 10!), just to show willing in case our Chinese partners wanted to contact us by telephone early in the day (they never did!). We were supposed to stay until at least 6pm every evening - just to give the UK office an opportunity to communicate with us (again, they hardly ever did). Last-minute shit had a habit of cropping up, which would tie you down until 7pm. And there was nowhere decent to have lunch in the vicinity, so I'd often stay in the office the whole time. That was a long fucking day!!! And 90% of the work I could have handled better from home.....

9) I had no autonomy.

No authority. No clearly-defined status, in fact. My line manager's job had grown unmanageably large, so I had been drafted in to pick up the overspill. But what that 'overspill' consisted of was largely down to their whim - and I couldn't do anything without referring to them. It was, really, a wretched skivvying role.

10) I had no real prospects there.

Even my 'superiors' aren't being that well paid, and they have years of seniority on me. It's a miserly little company. It's unlikely that I could ever have risen to a senior management position with them; and even more unlikely that they would have paid me what I think I deserve, even if I had. Better off without them.....

11) I'm never going to 'get rich' working for someone else.

Certainly not those jokers. Not that I really want to be rich..... but I'd like to stop being POOR.

12) It was consuming too much of my time.

The long days, the frequent travelling, the fact that I was (voluntarily!) doing additional paperwork and e-mailing on my "days off" - it was biting a huge chunk out of my week. Most of my previous lucrative freelance work has fallen by the wayside since I started with them. My jogging routine has faltered too. And it really wouldn't have been good for my prospects of forging any new romantic partnership to be 'on the road' two weeks out of every four.

Are you convinced yet?? I very nearly am.....

Chinese people LOVE me! (10)

"Chinese people love me because..... I mutter to myself almost constantly, like a schizophrenic, as I try to cross the street ("Fuckwad!" "Dipshit!" "Cretin!" "Learn how to drive, moron!" "Where's the brake pedal? Ah, yes - there it is.... well done!"). It's so amusing!"

Yes, I'm going through a particularly grumpy phase at the moment. But it doesn't seem to be doing anything to diminish the delighted fascination I inspire in my fellow Beijing residents....

8,000 Lurkers

Well, look at that - we've passed the 8,000 visitors mark on my Sitemeter at some point last night.

Something's definitely up with the traffic lately - I think we've had 30-odd hits in the last 12 hours or so. But no comments in that time. Hey, who are you guys? You come to my house, you sign my 'visitors book'! OK?!

(And yes, yes, I am already planning a post entitled '10,000 Maniacs'.....)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My 'agent' reassures me!

I have for a while been chasing a fairly lucrative TV documentary voiceover gig, via a Chinese go-between who I was recommended to by a friend of a friend.

It's been a couple of months since the project was first mentioned, and it's all been ominously silent since then; but today, I thought I'd send one last follow-up text message, just to see if there was any chance it might still be a live prospect for me.

The agent-guy apparently shares my intuition that the production company must have found someone else for the gig. But at least he apologised to me for the disappointed expectations, and he promised:
"If I have new job, I will touch you first!"

Well, that's nice.....

An ominous phone call

Probably another entry in my would-be series, 'Signs you're about to get canned'.

The boss phoned me out of the blue this morning to ask if I could come in today for my 6-month performance review. I only work 3 days a week for this outfit, and Tuesday ain't usually one of those days.

I do suddenly get a sinking feeling about this.

It would be a bit of a shock to get canned now, though. There's been no further warning of dissatisfaction. In fact, there seems to be no likely pretext at all. There haven't been any more problem issues since I first started to get a bad vibe from them a few months back. I've been working hard; getting things done; my colleagues in the UK all seem to like me; my clients here in China (mostly) love me; I've even managed to develop a modus operandi with my tempestuous Chinese colleague where she doesn't throw Tasmanian-Devil tantrums all over the office any more - even if I tell her she's wrong about something! No, things have all seemed to be going pretty well.....

But the boss man's voice did sound heavy with 'bad news'.......

Well, we shall see. I have deferred the confrontation until tomorrow. If they're going to sack me, they can at least do it on a day I'm (supposed to be) getting paid for!

Winter at last?

Yesterday's damp fog was driven away overnight by an area of high pressure, resulting in much the hardest frost we've had so far this year. And today might well have been the first on which the daytime temperature didn't rise above freezing (although, if Weather Underground's Beijing page is to be believed, the mean air temperature did just teeter a few degrees above - but it certainly didn't feel like it with the windchill!).

Walking around the nearby Houhai lakes area this morning (on my way to make a desperate last-minute mailing of Christmas cards at my local post office), I discovered somewhat to my surprise, that this recent drop in temperature had apparently been enough to start the ice freezing on the lake. Most years, I think, the relevant authorities actually drain most of the water out of these lakes at the onset 0f winter (I'm not sure if that does anything to help the formation of ice, or if it just renders things less hazardous if people should happen to fall through the ice), but they don't seem to have done that so far this year. And yet the lakes are freezing anyway - a good and thick-ish covering over all but the very edges of the surface.

This is somewhat of a mystery to me, because I really wouldn't have thought that, until last night, it had been cold enough to make much of a start on this process (the last couple of weeks, it's been really strangely mild for the time of year, and I don't think it's dropped much below freezing even at night). And the old city moat near my apartment doesn't have the slightest suggestion of any ice-formation on it (though perhaps sewage works as a kind of anti-freeze?). I wonder if they're adding something to the lake water to make it freeze? Ice-9, maybe??

I confess I tend not to notice exactly when the icing of the lakes occurs, because my jogging habit fades (a figure-8 circuit of the two main lakes is my favoured route) as the weather gets colder at this time of year, and I rarely go out to any of the lakeshore bars..... so my steps may not take me past there for days or weeks at a time in December. However, I am pretty sure that most of the years I've been living here, the icing has already been pretty much complete by now, and it is some time around the middle of this month that the annual 'frost fair' gets under way - with skating, sledding, and various other amusements taking over the ice until the end of January or beginning of February.

The ice certainly isn't thick enough for that yet - I suspect we're going to be a week or two behind the normal schedule this year. Global warming, anyone?