Thursday, January 31, 2008

Who is this Froog person anyway?

Some have asked. Heaven knows why!

If you're really interested to learn more about the eternal enigma that is Froog, here is the thumbnail biography I knocked up as 'back jacket copy' for a would-be novel as my entry in Moonrat's competition last week.

Froog attended Oxford University, where he was rendered virtually unemployable by a degree in Classics. He has flirted with careers as an academic, a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a TV producer and a beachcomber, but was spurned by all of them. He is a recovering teetotaller who moved to China in 2002. He now lives in Beijing, working mainly as a technical editor for a variety of academic journals, educational publishers, and business information services.

For the really curious (Beware of the Cat!!), this is a more richly detailed version that I created for one of the training companies I was involved with last year.

Froog was born in the UK, in the small city of Hereford near the Welsh border. He attended Oxford University, where he took a degree in Classics (an exceptionally diverse 'major' covering the language, literature, philosophy, art and history of ancient Greece and Rome). He then attended the School of Education at Durham University for one year, successfully completing a PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education), qualifying him to teach both Classics and English at secondary and tertiary level in the UK. During this year he was lucky enough to undertake a 'teaching practice' with the inspirational teacher, Adrian Spooner, who was then developing his "language awareness" coursebook, 'Lingo', which used the language and culture of Rome and Greece as a medium for enhancing the English language skills of younger secondary school students. Froog drew on this experience in writing his course dissertation on the problems of native speaker language acquisition and on the ways in which comparisons with the teaching and learning of other languages can be helpful in the English classroom. After qualifying, Froog worked for 4 years in a small private school in south-west England, mostly teaching English (but also Latin, Greek, Classical Civilization, Ancient History, Drama, and Film Studies). He particularly enjoyed working with some of the low-ability groups in the school, in which many of the students suffered from serious learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It was also here that he first became interested in the challenges faced by speakers of English as a second language, since a large number of the students were Chinese (mainly from Hong Kong and Singapore).

Temporarily retiring from teaching after a serious illness, Froog soon returned to the profession, working as a private tutor around Oxford giving one-to-one coaching in preparation for the national school exams, and becoming an Examiner in English Literature in these exams at both the 16-year and 18-year-old level (GCSEs and A-Levels). He also trained as an EFL teacher with the well-known Oxford International School of English (OISE), and delivered more than 500 hours of classes for them over the following 18 months. Then – at the advanced age of 30! – he took a "year out" to go backpacking around the world. The main focus of the trip was a visit to an old college friend who was teaching at Jianghan University in Wuhan. He spent nearly three months there, using it as a base for travels around the central provinces of China, and fell in love with the country.

Back in the UK, Froog returned to academic study, taking a Diploma in Law at the University of Westminster in London, and then attending Bar School to qualify as a barrister (trial lawyer). He won a scholarship to intern for a year with a commercial law firm in Toronto, but on his return found that there were no openings in the profession in England for someone of his age. Instead, he went to work in business, joining a TV production company which specialised in making corporate promotional videos and designing websites. Although initially taken on as a salesman, he soon became a team leader, managing production projects from inception to completion. Later, he moved to a similar role with a leading corporate hospitality provider.

However, Froog could not shake off his fascination with China, and when the chance came up to move to Beijing in 2002, he jumped at it. At first he taught English in Universities: the Beijing Normal University, the North Jiaotong University, and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since 2005, he has worked entirely freelance as an English teacher and business trainer, developing and delivering courses for such companies as Sun Microsystems, Cisco, Intel, Allen & Overy, Siemens, Alcatel-Shanghai-Bell, Beijing Power, China State Construction International, Sinopec, Lenovo, and the Bank of China.

He also provides specialist training seminars on business skills such as leadership, problem solving, time management, and giving presentations, and has taught on a number of pre-MBA and pre-MPA primer courses.

These days, teaching and training is only a sideline for him, as his focus has shifted more towards educational consultancy. He is also much in demand as a voice recording artist and as a writer and editor of English teaching materials, and has several further occasional jobs editing and polishing reports for academic journals, PR firms, marketing consultancies, business information services, etc.

He may write a novel or a travel book one day, if he can rein in his prolific blogging habit.

So, if you know anyone who might have a job for me......

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's a funny old world

My thanks to Ello (one of 'Moonrat's Minions', who keeps an amusing blog of her domestic struggles, with the fantastic title Random Acts Of Unkindness) for alerting me to the above piece of craziness. Yes, this is not just a joke, this actually exists. It is suggested in the promotional copy that these 'love seat' loos could actually bring couples closer together and cure relationship difficulties. Really? I should have thought it would be more likely to accelerate terminal ruptures, amid shrieks of, "What have you put in my bathroom, you pervert?!"

The Two-Da-Loo™ is apparently manufactured in China (although I would not like to speculate as to whether it was also conceived and designed here). I think, therefore, we can be confident of one thing - it won't work.

When I first visited this country 14 years ago, it soon became a running joke with my fellow travellers and the various foreign teachers I was visiting here that we all had to become skilled amateur plumbers in order to be able to survive the country. Really. In every place I stayed or visited, every Chinese friend's apartment, every cheap hotel, every university guesthouse, the lavatory cistern was completely dysfunctional. The Chinese seemed to just accept that this was the way of the world, and always kept a tin bucket of water beside the loo for flushing purposes. Yet my resourceful foreign friends and I often found that we could achieve at least a temporary rectification of ill-fitting outlet valves, blocked inlet tubes, and errant stop-cocks; bent coat-hangers proved particularly useful for such improvised repairs.

I had fondly supposed that things might have improved in this area by the time I returned here in 2002. But no, not much. The loo in this apartment leaked continuously (with horrendous consequences for my water bill) for about 18 months before I was finally able to browbeat my landlord into replacing it. Unfortunately, I failed to get him to buy me a (not terribly expensive) Japanese brand that I know to be reliable; but I did at least get a 'top-of-the-range' Chinese model this time. It still ain't great (the flush button is apt to stick; and I'm quite sure the mechanism will break completely within a few years), but at least it does the job and doesn't waste water like a mini-Niagara Falls.

A few months back, I visited a South African friend in her breathtakingly upscale apartment. When I went to the bathroom and saw the almost-forgotten name of Armitage Shanks (Britain's premier manufacturer of lavatories), I swear I nearly wept with delight.

Of course, it's probably a knock-off Armitage Shanks - but a good knock-off (a "genuine fake" as the local terminology charmingly puts it) is usually pretty close to the real thing; and even a poor impersonation of an Armitage Shanks toilet is going to be 10 times better than any purely Chinese brand I've ever encountered.

Signs your country isn't really 'developed' yet: Inability to build properly working mechanisms of even the most elementary complexity (such as flush-toilets and can-openers)

Signs your country has ideas above its station: Taking on the manufacture of novelty dual-toilets when you can't even get the basic model right yet

I think perhaps I should have titled this post Running Before You Can Walk.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Another job I am unlikely to be re-hired for....

Part of the Xinhua English-testing gig I just mentioned involved giving the interviewees a three-line news item (from a Xinhua story of the preceding week or so) and asking them to "Make comment on it" (obviously the testing materials had not been prepared by a native English speaker - surprise, suprise).

One of the more interesting - surprisingly provocative - of these snippets concerned a recent German government pronouncement opposing any moves to obtain UN status for Taiwan or independence for Tibet. I contrived to make sure that most of my guinea-pigs (well, the more articulate ones anyway) got that topic. They were supposed to have a free choice from a dozen or so different ones, but it was easy enough to 'force' this slip of paper by placing it in the middle of the proffered 'fan'.

I was yet again struck by how thoroughgoing the brainwashing on the Taiwan issue is here, even amongst very bright and well-educated people, many of whom have spent long periods overseas.

Well, for a start, everybody spoke only about Taiwan. I suspect there's less active propaganda about Tibet, but that seems to result in a complete blind-spot about it - the idea that there might even be a controversy over this was apparently incomprehensible to most of the people I talked to yesterday.

After enduring 30 seconds or so of the knee-jerk, pretty much word-for-word identical gabble of the party line on the Taiwan question, I did a few times interject heavily: "But this article is not about Taiwan. It's about Germany." I wanted to follow up by saying, "Why do you think Germany is so keen to kiss China's arse at the moment?", but I refrained.

One girl gushed, "Taiwan must remain part of China, because Taiwan has always been a part of China."

"Oh, really? How long has it been part of China?"


"What about from 1895 to 1945? It was a province of Japan for 50 years, wasn't it?"


"And when did Taiwan actually come under the political control of the mainland Chinese government? That only happened in the Qing dynasty, didn't it? In fact, it didn't become a full province of China until the 1880s, I think."

"Oh, I am so shamed. You know my country's history better than I do."

I'm not sure if that last remark was true or not. I had been trying to tease out of this girl what exactly they were taught in high school about the history of Taiwan's relationship with China. Is the answer really nothing at all? Or nothing beyond this emotive nationalistic crap about it having been spiritually a part of the motherland since the Dawn of Time?

However, there was one positive note to emerge from a day of depressingly unoriginal thinking. One of the other news items was about a sharp dip on the Shanghai Stock Exchange last week, which was blamed on "fears of a new American depression". One of the news editors I spoke to jeered candidly: "Oh, that's just a pack of lies. We try to blame everything on the Americans. There's really very little linkage between our domestic stock prices and the world markets as yet. It's just that our market is very overheated, and everybody is getting nervous ahead of the next Party Congress in March."

Ah, insight, honesty, irreverence. You don't find it nearly often enough, but there is some of it around. Maybe there is hope for this country after all.....

Protection of information

I earned a welcome few bucks over the weekend conducting English assessments on staff of the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

The Agency's office compound is rather an intimidating set-up - heavily guarded by sentries from the People's Liberation Army (rather than the police, or the shabby private security firms that most institutions make do with) - and much better-dressed and more intimidating ones than most of those who guard the foreign Embassies.

This is, after all, still a totalitarian country: news can be regarded as a 'state secret', to be guarded with tasers and pistols.

Xinhua, by the way, means 'Newspeak'. The irony is unintentional. They don't seem to have heard of Orwell here.  [Ah, I stand corrected on this last point.  Apparently, it's rather than , the hua that means 'China' rather than the one that means 'language'. Pity!]

A bon mot double whammy

"Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need."

Voltaire (1694-1778)

"Unemployment spares us from three evils: drudgery, management, and fatigue."


Saturday, January 26, 2008


The central loop line of the Beijing subway system has new trains today.

They are really quite snazzy..... although the folly of the decision to have uphostered seats was starting to become apparent after only 5 hours in service. Ah, this is China.

PS I'm not sure if this is somehow related to the introduction of the new rolling stock, but there have been a number of interruptions to the service this weekend. The short hop I've been having to make down to Xuanwumen should only take about 16 minutes, but has three times taken me more like half an hour. Today I decided to come back the wrong way around the loop, 1.5 times as far, thinking it might prove to be quicker - and it was. Things are always a little dodgy on the weekends, and some delays at the Xizhimen and Jishuitan stations (where trains are taken in and out of service and drivers changed over) are routine; but double the stated journey time - that's PFU!

Weekend entertainment - Portishead

I happened to be in a bar the other night (now there's a surprise!) where the TV screen was showing a film of Portishead in concert. Utterly mesmerising, even without the sound (though it was rather disconcerting, annoying to have other background music playing over the top of it - why??). I'd never seen this film before. Apparently it was recorded at New York's Roseland Ballroom in late 1997. I think I'm going to have to get this DVD.

Their fantastic debut album Dummy came out just before my first visit to China in 1994, and I was introduced to it by Toby, one of the friends I visited out here. I don't think he gave me a tape of it, as he did with one or two other albums of his that I liked, but the songs lingered in my head so powerfully that I always think of them as part of the 'soundtrack' of my travels that year.

I had intended to start posting some favourite songs from YouTube on here every week or so, or at least once or twice a month; but I haven't quite got into the habit yet. I will try and do better from now on. I did make a faltering start a while back, with clips of Liz Phair and Belly.

I learn from a quick noodle around the Internet that, after a 10-year walkabout, Portishead are finally about to bring out a third album in just a few months' time. I look foward to it.

And yes, I am hopelessly, hopelessly smitten with Beth Gibbons.

This is the song Roads from that Roseland performance.

Shame, resentment, hesitation

I mentioned in 'the other place' a week ago that I had entered one of my haiku in a competition to try to win a bottle of vodka. Yes, I'm that poor this month.

I have just learned that I did not win. Not even one of the runner-up prizes. And this despite the fact that two of the judges were acquaintances of mine (although it was all done anonymously, and I didn't do any illicit lobbying, of course). For a 'professional' haiku writer (well, you know, someone who writes them every week, sometimes nearly every day), this is rather humiliating. Annoying, actually. (I am piqued also that I only found out the results by checking on the organiser's blog; piqued that he didn't even bother to acknowledge receipt of the submission, let alone notify us of the results [it's not like he had that many entries!]; and piqued that he published my submissions without asking, and under my real name at that.) Although, in a way, I am relieved, because I will not now have to labour under any sense of "thank you for the vodka" obligation to this guy - who I find rather irritating and almost completely talentless.

However, this mild assault to the ego does add to my nervousness in confronting the Moonrat challenge. I have knocked off a couple of entries, but they are not quite what I would wish. And being told you suck by someone you like and respect is a little harder to bear. Dither, dither.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A labour of love

It's done! I have spent a hefty chunk of the past couple of days responding to Tulsa's (entirely forgotten, until she reminded me) request/challenge to come up with an analysis of the expat dating scene in Beijing.

Since Barstool Blues is where I mostly write about my love life (or the lack of it) these days, that is where I decided to put these posts. There's one on the unique circumstances of the Beijing scene, one on my advice to the ladies (!!), one self-analytical one about what I'm looking for in a woman here (and what my prospects might be of finding one), and the last - probably most practical - one is on how to meet people; and then there's a brief follow-up/summary with this morning's haiku.

If you don't live in Beijing (or you do live here but have decided to become an asexualist), this might be of limited interest to you; although I think there's quite a lot of 'wisdom' of more general applicability in these posts, as well as the odd invitation to controversy and quite a few good (mostly self-lacerating) jokes. A leisurely weekend read for some of you, perhaps....

Today's thigh-slapping moment in the studio

Just got back from a long-ish stint behind the microphone. Not a particularly hilarious session today. The only exchange that really got to my funnybone was this:

"You're looking very tired."

"Well, actually I feel great. I've been working out on the jam."

A "we're all doomed" haiku

Rise of the machines:
Humanity redundant.
Tin Man plays our 'Last Post'.

A reference, of course, to yesterday's post about the Toyota robot. I find myself suffering an odd mixture of emotions: I'm staggered by the technical accomplishment it appears to represent, but also profoundly depressed by the implications it has for our future.

This little slice of millennial gloom was my 800th nerbling here on Froogville. I hope you're all getting ready for the great Post 1,000 Party this summer.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The End Of The World As We Know It?

Maybe I am slow to pick up on this. I only just stumbled on this on YouTube, but I gather it's been making the news for over a year now - a series of robots from Toyota that can play musical instruments. This trumpeter is positively creepy.

You may remember that Kurt Vonnegut's very first novel, Player Piano, warned of the alienation and anomie that might tear society apart when all human labour is replaced by machines. An automaton like this makes that day seem not so far away, after all. Though I don't think anyone's developed one that can farm rice yet, so the poorest 70% of the world's population is still in a job.

The Disney medley the metal critter plays below is just awesome. Well, OK, its phrasing might be just a teeny bit, er, mechanical at times, but its control of pitch is improbably perfect: not a hint of a cracked note anywhere. How on earth does it control its embouchure?? It looks as if it's just blowing air through a rigid round hole - surely that can't work? I am inclined to suspect that this is just an elaborate hoax. Have there been any exposé stories I missed out on? Ah well, draw your own conclusions. There are several other clips of it in action (for example, here and here...... and here, if you can stand "I just called to say I love you"), but I think this is the best.

And just to remind you what proper trumpet playing sounds like, here again is that sublime piece of Chet Baker I posted on the Barstool last week.

Chinese people LOVE me! (15)

"Chinese people love me because...... I don't mind letting them pay for everything."

Actually, of course, I do mind: I was brought up to pay my own way, always contribute my fair share, not scab off other people. I get very uncomfortable when Chinese friends - or even business hosts and employers - are always trying to put their hand in their pocket for everything. But you have to let them have their way.

This cultural imperative about treating people is particularly prevalent in regard to meals: whenever a group of people is eating together, it is a deep-rooted tradition that one person should assume responsibility for paying for the whole shebang. Going Dutch is an outlandish concept here. Now, in a run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant, the whole bill is rarely going to be a crippling amount, and I - and many other foreigners here - will sometimes volunteer to settle up, to avoid embarrassing less affluent Chinese friends. At other times, we may surreptitiously divvy up the bill between us, omitting to ask our Chinese companions for a contribution. However, if one of the Chinese asks to pay, you really can't oppose the idea - it's a face issue for them.

Perhaps this convention is finally beginning to weaken a bit with the younger, more 'Westernized' generation. A translator friend of mine told me that she was once out with a group of Chinese buddies, all louche young writers and musicians, who had ordered a little too freely in the restaurant, and when the uncomfortably large maidan appeared at the end of the meal, it was mournfully circulated around the table, with each of the guys in turn theatrically frowning and shrugging and then jokingly passing it on to one of his friends, saying, "Oh, you can have the face on this one!" I wish I'd been there. I don't think that kind of playful sending up of ingrained traditions is very common as yet.

And this isn't just confined to meals: there's a prevalent notion that if you're trying to impress someone, you should pay for everything. I've had Chinese clients showing me around their schools and colleges who were embarrassed if I tried to buy so much as a can of coke for myself during my visit. This is particularly true of dating: girls are supposed to be able to go out without even 5 fen in their purse; guys are expected to pay for absolutely everything. The Feminist Revolution hasn't gone that far in China yet.

I recall once I had asked a pretty English girl I'd just met if she'd like to accompany me and a couple of my Chinese students on a Sunday morning tour of a great open-air fruit & veg market I'd recently discovered. The students had an English-speaking exam coming up imminently, so it was a valuable extra opportunity to practice for them; and it would be, I hoped, a nice low-pressure, not-really-a-date kind of first date with the English girl. Alas, the latter part of the plan didn't work out too well: it was a bitterly cold day, and she got snuffly and grumpy, decided to go home before lunch. We saw her off at the subway station. I thought I had been duly - but not excessively - concerned and affectionate; solicitous about her health, apologetic that it hadn't been such a great excursion for her. But the two Chinese girls with me were horrified. As soon as she'd left, they began to berate me.

"We thought you liked that girl?"

"Well, er, yes, I guess. I've only just met her, you know."

"Then how can you treat her so badly?"

"What do you mean? I was trying my best to be nice."

"Why did you not pay for her subway ticket?"


"Her subway ticket! You let her buy it for herself!"

They were outraged. They thought I deserved to spend the rest of my life alone. I tried to explain to them that, for an English girl, having me determinedly interpose myself between her and the ticket window and insist on treating her to a 3kuai ticket (that was about 25p in UK terms at the time) would be, er, creepy. But they wouldn't have it.

That girl never warmed to me anyway. I don't think it was the subway ticket incident that did it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More fun over on The Barstool

I am concerned that y'all are neglecting the 'black sheep' of my little blogging family, the ever-so-slightly disreputable Round-The-World Barstool Blues. Please don't. There is some very good stuff on there from time to time.

For instance, at the end of last week I posted two sublime music videos, of Chet Baker and Suzanne Vega, which no-one seems to have looked at yet. Go on, make the time - you won't regret it.

I also commend you (once again) to my Possible Band Names game, which is taking off quite nicely now. This week we've had excellent batches of entries from The Bookseller and Gary. I was inspired by these two guys to contribute some more suggestions myself, and this has led to an additional competition: this latest list of mine is inspired by quotations from favourite films - if you can identify them all, I'll give you a prize of some sort. Yay for audience participation!

I have also just begun the mammoth task, set for me by Tulsa, of analysing Beijing's dating scene - 1st major post on that today, one or two more to follow shortly. The Barstool seemed the more appropriate venue for these posts, since that is where I mostly discuss going out, and 'Love, etc'. I hope to provoke some vigorous comment threads with this series!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Moonrat Challenge

And while we're on the subject of competitions.....

Moonrat has created a competition for the literarily-inclined on her blog - in fact, a dual competition: either to write jacket blurb for an intended book or an amusing sonnet. She has also provided helpful discussion and illustration of the requirements of the book blurb task here and here.

Alas, she set rather a tough deadline - by the end of this week - which I fear will frustrate many of us (well, me).

Not that I have too much else to do with my time at the moment, of course. Perhaps I'll spend the rest of the day reading every sonnet I can find - to try to programme the form into my resistant brain.

You should all give it a try as well. Go on.

The Bookseller returns

My notorious old drinking buddy, The Bookseller, is slowly joining my select crew of commenters (mostly over on the Barstool). This weekend he offered his entry in my Possible Band Names competition. It's an inspired list - definitely worth checking out.

A sign I knew I was about to get fired (?)

I had thought I had left a pile of business cards on my desk when I got canned last month - including the ones from the big new clients I'd just met. And, of course, my desk was cleared - comprehensively - before I was able to set foot in the office again. Slightly galling, since I had been hoping to approach these guys about the possibility of working for them directly (although I was able to find most of the info I wanted about them on the Internet).

But you know what? I discovered last week that I'd put all these business cards in my jacket pocket and brought them home with me straight away. Odd that I had forgotten this. Odder still that I had done it! I suppose subconsciously somehow I suspected that the axe was about to fall. There had, of course, been all sorts of ominous signs over the preceding couple of months, but since my last review with my manager seemed to have gone swimmingly and since I'd got up to the 6-month mark without any mention of dissatisfaction (let alone notice being given!), I had just started to think that I was SAFE..... and it came as an ugly surprise.

But perhaps nothing is ever a complete surprise if you're as hyper-observant (my new euphemism for 'paranoid') as I am.....

Monday, January 21, 2008

I WANT this book!

I wonder if my pal, the Life Coach, has a copy - it looks like the kind of thing she would use in her work.

This is from a list of 11 Weird Book Titles from the English newspaper, The Daily Mail. Don't ask me how I found it - I'm not sure I can remember (it certainly can't be located from the Mail's not-very-searchable homepage). Definitely worth checking out!

I think Walled Up Nuns is my favourite. Another possible band name contender? Oh yes, I think so!

More Nietzsche

"What someone is, begins to be revealed when his talent abates, when he stops showing us what he can do."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

This is certainly true of music - and probably of writing and the visual arts as well. Technique is necessary, but it can be too self-conscious or self-indulgent, often an obstacle to free expression rather than a facilitator of it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


I think possibly one of the main formative influences on my life, although I never met him, was my maternal grandfather. He had separated from my grandmother years before I was born, and was subsequently ostracised by his family. I knew him only from the evocative stories my mother would sometimes tell about him. Apparently he dropped out of University, decided to work his way around the world on merchant ships, fetched up in Rio where he met and married my grandmother (working as a nanny, a young German refugee from the great post-WW1 depression), and then somehow blagged himself a job as the manager of a huge horse & cattle ranch in central Brazil.

Yes, my grandfather was a gaucho! And his leather over-trousers ('bombashers' they call them in those parts, apparently), gnarly with age, scoured and pitted from years of battling with thornbushes until they resembled Keith Richards's face, hung on the wall in our dining-room throughout my childhood, looking down on us as we ate, dominating my imagination at every meal. My mother and her sister were born in a town high in the Matto Grosso called Araçatuba - the name has always seemed exquisitely exotic to me, and I hanker to visit one day. Why on earth the family came back to England - on the eve of the War - I'll never understand.

So, growing up with dreams of riding the open range on a distant continent, it was never likely that I was going to settle down to a life of humdrum conformity in a bank or a law firm....

However, I do rather like the counter-balancing view of this Larkin poem - that maybe the impulse to travel, the rejection of a settled life, can be a little too smug and self-regarding... perhaps a conformity of a different kind? I don't think that is the case for me. I hope not. But I ask myself the question every year or two, just to try to reassure myself.

The imagery here reminds me of another powerful formative influence from my earliest childhood - the sea rat, a charismatic sailor-adventurer who briefly meets the heroes of The Wind In The Willows when they first set out on the road in their gypsy caravan (Toad's pre-motor car enthusiasm), and who tempts The Water Rat in particular to pursue such an exotic wandering life himself. I love that book to pieces, and try to re-read it every few years. There is a great tension in it between the allure of travel and the comfort of home. The 'Dulce Domum' chapter, where Mole finally returns home after his adventures, always used to make me cry - and probably still would! However, despite this sympathy with the affection for the familiarity of 'home', the call of 'the open road' always appealed to me more, both in reading the book as a child and in my life subsequently. Parents, beware - books can have a momentous impact on your children's development!

I sent this poem to all my friends back home when I left for China in 2002.

Poetry of Departures

Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off.
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order.
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

A very long Christmas

Sometimes delayed seasonal wishes can be a nice surprise, as was the case the other night; but there has been a mysterious late flurry of Christmas cards for me this week. Well, two. Does two count as a flurry? Whatever.

My thanks to The Younger Dr P and to Mr & Mrs Jim-Bob - but I wonder why their greetings arrived so late. There was no visible postmark on the envelopes, but these are not the kind of people who would leave it until the beginning of January to get around to mailing Christmas cards (well..... not the Jim-Bobs, anyway).

Is this simply further incompetence from my bao'an (the skinny teenage security guards who handle the mail and - ostensibly - prevent undesirables from gaining access to my apartment building)? They do sometimes just sit on letters for a week or two. Or more.

Or is it, I wonder (here comes the paranoia again!), more calculated interference - censorship? - from the government? It could be. This is China.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Grocery shopping blues

I'm sure I must have mentioned before (ah yes - for example, here) what a challenging chore shopping can be in China.

In particular, it's rather annoying when brands you've becomed attached to suddenly become 'temporarily unavailable' or permanently discontinued. Oh, sure, this happens everywhere else too. Just not as frequently as it does in China.

I just went to my local supermarket for the weekly shop and was dismayed by the following absences: my favourite brand of bacon, my favourite brand of roasted peanuts, the only palatable brand of bread, the only brand of margarine.

To be deprived of one or two of the key items on your shopping list is par for the course. But four?! My feelings are straying beyond inconvenienced towards persecuted.

Sometimes it takes an artist....

.... to tell it like it is.

My Aussie journo friend Mary-Anne has just done a profile in her paper, The Age, on Ai Wei Wei, China's leading contemporary artist. Jeremiah at the The Granite Studio also picked up on this today and posted an extended excerpt.

For me, the money quote is this brilliant summation of life under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party:
"If you have 70 million professional liars who are controlling the whole nation - it's a madhouse."

Hear, hear.

Against the laws of physics

It has been a cold week in Beijing. I don't think it has been above freezing all week, even on the sunniest afternoon. It's regularly been several degrees below during the day, and getting down to -10 or worse overnight. There's a pretty good covering of ice on the Houhai lakes now, and skating has begun in earnest.

However, the canal near my apartment, alongside the BeiErHuan (2nd Ringroad North), which was formerly the moat outside the old city wall, is still completely unfrozen. I mean, completely. There is not a trace of ice anywhere on it.

A month or so ago, when the weather was not anywhere near as cold as it is now, this moat was intermittently freezing over. But now, nothing. What are they putting in that water?

Perhaps we're happier not knowing....

Friday, January 18, 2008

Some friends are really good....

When you stagger home at nearly 3 in the morning after a long and difficult day/week/month it is astoundingly uplifting to find a late Christmas present from one of your dearest friends and when you open it and discover it's the new Radiohead CD you have to play it straight away, don't you?

Thank you, Lizzie.

Belly rumbles, belly laughs

As part of Beijing's 'modernizing for the Olympics' drive, more and more restaurants are starting to keep an English menu (often just the one, because, you know, there's really not that much call for it). Or at least a picture menu. In fact, there seem to be some standardized ones that are now popping up in many different family-run restaurants - I wonder if this is an initiative sponsored by the municipal government?

While one welcomes such a development in principle, it is, of course, as with most of China's attempts to improve the quality of its bilingual signage, being done on the cheap, with no attempt to involve native English speakers in the process.

My new favourite Xinjiang restaurant has recently acquired one of these menus, which tends to make me laugh so hard that I almost lose my appetite.

A hotpot dish, for example, is labelled the beef is stewed arbitrarily. Well, is there any other way?

And that old standard, gong bao jiding (that's Kung Po Chicken to my American friends), is chicken piece goober.

I am not making this up.

A freezing cold haiku

Winter at last

Wind-knives are unsheathed;
Frozen puddles will not thaw;
Dirty snow lingers.

Yes, over the past week or so it has finally got seriously f***ing cold in Beijing (some 5 or 6 weeks later than usual); the skating frenzy on the lakes has begun at last; and yesterday we had our first real snow of the season (not much, but....). And now WeatherUnderground is predicting that a real Siberian cold snap may be moving in on Sunday night. I may have to dig out my thermals after all

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ways to visit websites blocked in China

At the start of this week, Blogspot blogs were briefly available in China again. It only lasted a few days - the Great Firewall block is back on again now. It's utterly baffling as to why this happens occasionally.

There seem to have been a number of such shortlived liftings of the Blogspot block this year: two or three that I've noticed (I tend to discover it by accident, when a Google search leads me to a Blogspot blog and I find to my surprise that I can open the link in Explorer rather than Firefox!), and perhaps several more that I haven't.

The reason I mostly remain in blissful ignorance of the vacillations of Chinese government policy towards Blogspot is that I have long been using an alternate IP routing on Firefox (download the Firefox browser FREE here) to access Blogspot blogs (a dodge widely disseminated in China blogging circles last Spring by Shanghai student Yee, passing on the tip from his hacker friend Fermi). It can be slightly tricky to get it to work, but it's a godsend (just keep trying - sometimes the code gets scrambled when you cut&paste from Yee's post; and you need to resist the temptation to re-format it to appear as it does on the blog - when you paste it into Notepad, it becomes a continuous single line of text... but that's just fine, don't tamper with it). As well as providing an unguarded backdoor into Blogspot, Yee's/Fermi's directions also give you free access to Wordpress and Livejournal webpages. (And it used to work for Wikipedia as well, but China's censors seem to have found a way of jumping on that - I'm not sure if there may be a new back-up IP address for Wikipedia that we could substitute in the code. I must have a look out there on the Net.)

You can also try the xB Browser (formerly known as Torrify) from XeroBank, a free software add-on for Firefox that enables you to reach any website anonymously. It's very good, but sometimes rather slow - it might be worth paying the small subscription for the 'enhanced version' of the service.

Hotspot Shield is a similar application - again free, but again irritatingly slow. In fact, I'm currently having difficulty getting it to work at all; but it has been recommended by Jeremiah over at The Granite Studio, so it's probably worth persevering with.

Perhaps the quickest and easiest way of viewing websites blocked in China (without downloading anything, or having to tinker with your browser settings) is via Kallahar's Place (Method #2 only - #1 and #3 are no good). Note: There is an irritating glitch with this that you tend to get 'stuck' on the page you're visiting - you have to click 'Refresh' to get back to the original proxy page in order to be able to move on to other websites [Update: This problem now seems to have been rectified.]. However, this site does have the considerable advantage of being the only proxy service I know that gives you access to secure sites - i.e. it enables you to leave comments on blogs.

Another simple proxy (which again enables you to comment) is this Google service for mobile devices (another tip from Yee). Unfortunately it only gives you highly simplified versions of the websites you're visiting - pretty much text only.

And then, of course, there's the old faithful Anonymouse. I use this a lot. I've tried other proxy servers, but they always seem to fall foul of the Great Firewall after a while. Anonymouse seems to be much the most nimble in constantly developing new routings to evade blocking. (Alas, it's not completely immune to Chinese censorship - for example, if you try using it to search for Tiananmen-related articles on Wikipedia, you run into problems....) In China, it can be very slow. And the pop-up ads are annoying. But it's the best service of its kind out there that I've been able to discover.

I've mentioned all of these things before - notably in this fairly thorough discussion of the Net censorship problem in China - but I thought I'd consolidate them into a new post, and add all the links to the sidebar. I'm a public-spirited fellow like that. Of course, if you're in China and you don't already know about this stuff...... it won't be a lot of help to you!

Update: This article from The Atlantic at the beginning of March 2008, "The Connection Has Been Re-set", provides quite a detailed explanation of the techniques our Chinese Net censors use to do what they do.

Further Update, 20 / 4 / 08:
Kallahar's continues to be annoyingly glitchy. It seems to have lost the facility (which I'm sure it used to have) to proxify links you followed from your original proxied page; now, you can't even visit other pages from the same website - which is a mighty inconvenience. Moreover, the problem of not being able to return to the original Kallahar's page has got even worse: hitting the 'Refresh' button no longer works; the only thing that does is backtracking to a previous page, deleting your Internet files (not the 'cookies') via the Tools-Internet Options dropdown menu, and then entering the Kallahar's URL again; otherwise, you're stuck on the first proxied page you visit!! In practice, the only way to use it now is to open a separate window for every single page you want to visit. Unfortunate. However, it is still the only convenient web-based proxy service I know that allows you to access the comments form of a blog (at least on Blogspot; and this is only by virtue of the fact that it doesn't proxify links; most anonymizers that do automatically proxify links - like Anonymouse - won't give you access to 'secure' pages with a sign-in feature; Kallhar's gives you a non-proxied link..... and, strangely enough, the Blogspot comments are run on its sister site, Blogger, which is not blocked in China!).

Yee's cunning Firefox workaround - which had served us well for the last year or so - has finally been squelched by the dratted Kafka Boys.

Hotspot and the xB Browser I both find to be unusable - at least with the connection speeds I have to suffer on my Internet link at home.

However, long-term salvation may finally be at hand for me. A number of friends have recommended the FoxyProxy add-on for Firefox, and I've been using it for the past couple of weeks. I had some initial problems with it, so have been hesitant about passing on the recommendation. It can be fiddly to install (it's one of those strange file types that Windows refuses to recognise, so that it appears to be impossible to 'Open' or 'Run' the downloaded file): the trick, I discovered, is to save it to the 'Extensions' sub-folder of your Mozilla Firefox folder - then you get an automatic 'installation' pop-up. Furthermore, I was at first using FoxyProxy only with the built-in 'Default Proxy' option, but China's Net censors have started blocking that. I hope that service might be restored to us before long, but so far it seems not.

You can set FoxyProxy to use the TOR network instead. I had been sceptical about this, because of my problems with the xB Browser (which also uses TOR), but the 'Tor bundle' you can download FREE from TOR's own website (it includes two further software applications called Privoxy and Vidalia, though I'm not at all sure what they're supposed to bring to the party) automatically installs and configures for Firefox - and works much, much better (although it's still very slow if you've got more than a few windows open, and will often 'time out' at busy periods of the day - you just have to be patient and keep hitting 'Retry' when this happens). As I understand it, TOR is a huge and constantly evolving distributed network of relay computers (you have the option to add your own computer as a relay, but I'm reluctant to do that, as I have such connection speed issues already), which means that it's pretty much impervious to censorship.

In addition to TOR and the (currently defunct) 'Default Proxy', you can also configure FoxyProxy to use particular proxy servers for particular websites or types of website (you can define both inclusive and exclusive lists - more info on this here). I might have to start looking into this, as using TOR for everything I view on Firefox ties up a huge amount of processor capacity and bandwidth, and often brings my browsing grinding to a standstill. Despite these difficulties, though, I do thoroughly recommend it: it's easy to use, allows you to view anything, and is damn nigh censor-proof (it's nice, for example, to be able to enjoy unhindered Google Image searches once again - at last, I may be able to post some more llama pictures!).

Final Update:
The creators of the TOR add-on for FoxyProxy decided around the middle of 2009 that it really wasn't all that secure if you used Flash plug-ins with it, and so disabled them in the default settings - thus rendering the service completely bloody useless for Blogger, YouTube, and most of the sites I was interested in (although you can re-enable Flash and other 'risky' plug-ins via the Preferences tab for FoxyProxy, I was finding the service just too damn slow and glitchy to be worth bothering with any more).

Continuing heavy censorship in China in the run-up to the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in October 2009 meant that most web-based proxies (and even a few VPNs, from time to time), including - finally - Kallahar's Place, were being very effectively squelched - although a few key sites, such as Wikipedia, had been allowed within the Great Firewall.

Although some friends still swear by the free Hotspot service, I could never get it to work for me. I have finally subscribed to the excellent, very fast, very reliable Witopia VPN (only $60 US per year), which is what most people I know in China seem to be using now. I do hope those darned Kafka Boys won't find a way of torpedoing this as well.

Do let me know if you find anything better.


One of my charming lady friends writes a monthly column in one of the expat mags here. She's a good writer and it's always an amusing read. Kind of depressing for me, though, sometimes.

This month she is complaining about how there is such a dearth of suitable single males in Beijing that she has been forced to resort to an online dating site to try to find a boyfriend. She grumbles that all the friends she has here are either female, far too young, or gay. Er, hello - what does that make me? Gay??

I mean, I'm not saying that I'm interested necessarily - but all the same, it would have been nice to merit a few nanoseconds' consideration in this survey of the scene..... maybe just the tactful insertion of a 'nearly' in the article: "nearly all my friends here are female, 26 years old, or gay."

Or does she actually think I'm gay??!!

Maybe I need to lay off the White Russians, stop talking about cooking so much, and start acting more manly.....

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rich and strange

Here are a couple of great discoveries on the Internet in the last few days that I would like to share with you. First, a charming little story from my friend Leah (she's an anthropologist, you know, so she has some sort of excuse for trawling the Web for this kind of thing) on the Ghanaian novelty coffin industry. The outsize Nike trainer above is one of the most striking examples of their handiwork.

And then (via the already indispensable Webside Gleanings) there are these weirdly beautiful sculptures of jellyfish, crafted out of plastic mineral water bottles by Japanese artist Miwa Koizumi. There are several more examples to enjoy on his website, here.

Moonrat, the post-poacher

My lovely blog-pal Moonrat has finally made good on her repeated promises (first voiced probably a good 10 or 11 months ago!) to write something about my '7 Habits of Highly Efficient Readers' post. In fact, she has stolen it wholesale (though quite welcome to it), while adding some commentary of her own. There's already rather a lively comment-thread (well, she has a readership, you see [sighs enviously]; whereas I just have a handful of old University drinking buddies and the 'Friends of Tulsa'..... we few, we happy few.....). This has prompted me to add some further comments (first on her post, now copied over on to my original one) elaborating on my original propsitions, attempting for the first time to explain or justify them. So..... even if you've read this one before, it might be worth going back and having another look, and/or checking out what the 'Friends of Moonrat' have to say about it.

Beyond the Fourth

Last night I went to an NFL promotional event in a big new expat bar far out on the east side of town. I mean far out. Beyond the 4th Ringroad. I find it difficult to conceive of such a thing.

I remember heading out along that road at the end of my first year here, going to a hotpot restaurant out in the sticks that was owned by the parents of one of my students: once we got beyond Chaoyang Park, it was pretty much all open countryside. Now, it is all gleaming new tower blocks.

When I arrived here in 2002, the 5th Ringroad was still under construction. Apart from in the University district to the north-west, built-up areas were sparse outside the 4th Ringroad, and there were still even a few undeveloped patches of land here and there between the 3rd and 4th Rings. Now, there is uninterrupted conurbation well beyond the 4th, and, in most quadrants, beyond the 5th as well. I am told that the 6th Ringroad (unimaginably far from the centre) is now completed, or very nearly so; and plans are already afoot for a 7th, and perhaps an 8th. The population of the city has been growing at around 500,000 a year every year since I got here (and that's the official figure, which might be a little on the conservative side), which means something like a 40% increase in total over that period. The expat population is essentially uncountable, but I would guess that it has at least trebled. The effective geographical extent of the city has, I would say, approximately doubled in just over 5 years.

Mind-blowing! The pace of change here baffles the comprehension, leaves us reeling.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Possible Band Names - a new GAME for you

Take a shufti over at the sidebar there. Yep, if you look really closely, you will notice that I have added another link - to this weekend's post over on my 'drinking (& romance & music & whatever) blog' Round-The-World-Barstool Blues - the 'Possible Band Names' game.

Surely most of us have at one time or another dreamed of being in a rock'n'roll band. Some of us actually have been in one (I was briefly a kind of supernumerary member of a high school punk group). And even if we haven't, we can fritter away an amusing 5 or 10 minutes thinking up names we might use for our band if we did ever get around to forming one. After all, our ideas are bound to be better than half of the names that actual bands come up with (this is a particular problem in China, where the rock music scene typically boasts excellent musicianship but dreadful lyrics and worse vocals..... and band naming that is somewhere-beyond-LAME), aren't they? Aren't they??

Well, let's see. The challenge has been laid down. Betake yourself over to the Barstool and leave me your favourite band name suggestions.

I may even make it into a competition. "What - with prizes?!" No, of course not - don't be silly! But I shall mete out praise or sarcasm according as your creativity deserves.

Time for a poem

As a sometime Classicist, I am naturally drawn to writing with Classical themes; indeed, I have been something of a 'collector' of such things. (An aside: the supervisor on my teacher training course introduced me to a poem on Andromeda by a Graham Hough. It's a fine piece, but I've never been able to find it on the Internet. I would be very grateful to anyone who could show me where to obtain a copy.)

The lost 'Andromeda' aside, this poem by Auden is probably my favourite of these 'Classical' pieces.

The Shield Of Achilles

She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighbourhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down.
Yet, congregated on its blankness stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place;
No-one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot;
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came.
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone.
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away.
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

A bon mot on creativity

"You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star."

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Well, thanks, Fred. So, I'm half-way there.....

Saturday, January 12, 2008

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek

It has been objected (by certain of my 'friends') that my 'fantasy girlfriends' so far have been mostly fictional characters (or, in the case of Queen Gorgo, arguably real..... but dead for nearly 2,500 years).

This month, then, I nominate an actual flesh-and-blood, living contemporary - the dazzlingly gorgeous Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek. Dauntingly smart, heart-meltingly pretty, completely unpretentious...... and adept at roughing it in the bush. Tomboyishly tough yet still super-sexy - a sort of real-life Lara Croft. She might not be much recognised outside of the UK, but over the past decade she has become one of the BBC's hottest
natural history presenters - although her primates specialism (she began her career working with Jane Goodall) somewhat limits her opportunities, and I get the impression that she really is more concerned with continuing to pursue her academic interests than with courting celebrity; so, she hasn't done very much on TV in the last few years; and there are surprisingly few pictures of her on the Internet - this is the best one I could find.

It tortures me to think that she was at University in Bristol when I was in my first job just down the road in Taunton and visiting Bristol pretty regularly..... I might have met her then if Fate had been kinder......

Friday, January 11, 2008

Visa limbo

Well, I've spent the last week or so fretting about whether and how to get my visa renewed (without going to the bother of getting myself a new job, of course!); and now, at last, it is - supposedly - taken care of.

Except that I'm not completely confident that the opinion I've just received from my visa agent is correct. Her view seems to be that my visa is valid for as long as my Work Permit is valid (seemingly, the end of June), and that my Work Permit will not be cancelled merely because I have left the employment on which it was originally based. She tells me therefore that I do not have to bother about getting a replacement visa & working permit for another 4 months or so.

Well, that's nice - because it was going to cost me a pot of money. However, this is not what she'd told me in our discussions over the phone earlier this week (but I make allowances for possible misunderstanding there; even Chinese who speak extremely good English tend to get very easily flummoxed on the phone). Nor is it what I've repeatedly been told in the past, when faced with a similar situation. Nor indeed was it the advice that I received from my former employer (although the Chinese office manager who was consulted on the point admitted that she didn't really know). So, anxieties remain.

What my agent seems to be telling me now is that your visa (and your related 'Foreign Expert Certificate' or 'Aliens' Working Permit') may be revoked if your employment is terminated due to some delinquency on your part - and if your employer chooses to bring this to the attention of the authorities. This fairly frequently does happen in cases where a teacher parts company from a language school before the end of the contracted period.... and then finds himself hounded out of the country. However, I am assured that it is not a standard and automatic procedure - and, since my old employer is playing nice and is quite prepared to attest that our parting was amicable and "by mutual agreement", I should have no problems. Shouldn't have. We shall see.

I'll probably be on tenterhooks for the next 4 or 5 months until I can finally get a new visa that is not in any way tied to the former employer. And there's an additional worry attached to the timing there: it's getting increasingly tricky to obtain visas here in Beijing, as the police get more and more skittish about Olympic security concerns; indeed, there are worrying rumours (they seem unbelievable - but this is China) that no visas are going to be issued for the Olympic month of August at all (other than tourist visas, that is - which you can't obtain inside China). What an intriguing year lies ahead of us! Interesting times, indeed, interesting times.

A recommendation from the past

Earlier this week, I inaugurated a new feature over on the Barstool, 'advertising' a favourite (but neglected) post from the archives in a 'Pick of the Month' tab in the sidebar.

I shall repeat the experiment here on Froogville.

For my first recommendation..... how about this very early post on the 'glamour' of spying? Believe it or not, I have more than once fallen under suspicion of being in this line of work!

Chinese people LOVE me! (14)

"Chinese people love me because..... I happily agree that Da Shan's Chinese is very impressive."

In fact, Da Shan is almost universally reviled by expats here. Partly because he raises Chinese people's expectations of how well foreigners should be able to understand and speak Mandarin to an unreasonably high level (all credit to him: he's pretty much 100%, native-speaker fluent, and can perform traditional 'cross-talk' comedy shtick and Beijing opera songs.... but he has been at it for over 20 years now! Most of the rest of us could never hope to catch up, however hard we tried.). Partly because the praise of him by the Chinese is excessively extravagant (his tones and pronunciation don't sound that good to me; and he definitely retains a strong Canadian accent). But mostly because his stage persona is so obnoxiously smug and irritating - he even laughs at his own 'jokes' all the time (well, it's more of a strangulated snigger, a hiccuping nasal snort). Stage persona? No, actually, I think that probably is his personality - and he's not the kind of guy you'd want to invite around for dinner.

Also, in my case at least, I find him detestable because he's such a mercenary, unscrupulous sell-out. He seems to accept just about any endorsement opportunity that's offered him - including, for example, a year or two ago, an electronic dictionary. These all suffer from abysmally bad English vocabulary databases, and are more of a hindrance than a help to Chinese students' efforts to learn the language; and I'm quite sure Da Shan did nothing to try to check or improve the quality of the particular product he was shilling. Heck, even the English subtitles on his TV ad for this were dreadful. I've also seen him chairing a number of panel discussion programmes which are little more than platforms for the most objectionable pro-China/anti-Taiwan, pro-China/anti-Tibet, pro-China/anti-Japan, pro-China/anti-world government propaganda. Quisling! He has attained his eminence (ubiquity!) in the media here by egregious sucking-up to the Chinese government and the Chinese people, shamelessly pandering to their constant desire to be told how wonderful (and fault-free) they are. I happen to feel that this is not what China needs at this stage of its development; time for a little more honesty, self-awareness, and straight-talking, I say. I thus find Da Shan utterly contemptible.

But of course, I'd never say so to my Chinese friends - who revere him as some sort of demi-god.

Depressed haiku

Calendar ambush;
Remembered grief cuts anew:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Some languages have music

Others don't.

I was reminded of this the other day when writing a review of War of the Rats, a novel about the last days of the battle for Stalingrad.

I especially liked this passage where the protagonist compares the language of the German invaders unfavourably with his native Russian:
"He judged it an ugly language, a battle tongue. German was spoken in the back of the throat, bitten and chewed with the teeth. By contrast, he considered Russian to be liquid; it was a language to be cradled on the lips, swirled in the mouth like cognac. Russian could be whispered through a keyhole to an angry lover on the other side to stroke her into unlocking the door. German was the language to knock the door down. It was how you spoke to your dog or cleared your throat."

I'm not sure that Russian is the most mellifluous of languages, but it certainly trumps German, which does have far too many hard edges, too much guttural sputtering (though my German ancestors - all my maternal line - would no doubt disown me for saying so). For me, French is much the most attractive-sounding language. Italian and Spanish come trailing in behind. Most of the Slavic languages are, I find, a little too gruff and clipped. I don't really know too much about Asian or African languages; I think their 'alien' quality, their extreme unfamiliarity may be a potential obstacle to their seeming entirely pleasing to the Western ear.... although I do love to listen to Africans, for the marvellous timbre of their voices and the delightful sing-song rhythms, whether speaking a native language or heavily accented English or French. And I once spent a delightful evening listening to a couple of Fijians converse in their native language, despite not understanding - nor making any attempt to understand - a single word of it (I had in fact built up a small vocabulary of key words by then, after nearly a month in the islands; and a lot of Fijian words are recognisably derived from English; but on this occasion, I was happy to bathe in the sounds of the words and forget about meaning).

East Asian languages are harder to grasp, harder to speak, harder to like because of their use of tones. Since intonation in Western languages is largely used to convey underlying emotion rather than specific meaning, it takes us a long time to overcome the discomfiting impression that Oriental peoples are permanently inappropriately pissed off about something. But I fear this unfortunate impact of the tones is particularly severe with Mandarin Chinese. Japanese, Korean, and Thai are also tonal languages, yet what I've heard of these tongues (admittedly quite little) does not sound relentlessly shrill or grating; indeed, I think they sound quite pleasant; Japanese especially so (and I recently sat through 2+ hours of Letters From Iwo Jima, so I've had the exposure). Mandarin, I'm sorry to say, sounds just horrendous.

It is, to my ear, such an outrageously ugly language that it is not even saved by sex. Most languages can be. Polish sounds at best dull, at worst growly and surly when spoken by men; but in the mouth of a cute Polish girl it can seem like one of the sexiest languages in the world. French is such a gorgeous language that it even sounds good when blokes speak it; but when a woman speaks it, you could fall in love in an instant. We even notice the same phenomenon with accents and dialects; some (most!) of the regional varieties of British English lack intrinsic charm: Scots and Geordie, in particular, tend to sound like the blathering of a belligerent drunk when spoken by a man (even if that man should happen to be a mild-mannered teetotaller), but a soft-spoken girl can make them seem deliciously sexy.

Mandarin when spoken by a girl usually sounds even worse - strident and whiny. I don't mind listening to gruff old Beijing cab-drivers converse, but the chatter of young Chinese women can be just excruciating.

And it's not just this fingernails-on-a-blackboard quality of the tones that I can't stand; there doesn't seem to be any pleasing interplay between the phonemes of the language either. Basically, it's such a bloody indistinct language: it is mostly spoken far back in the mouth, with very little involvement of the lips - which means that, by Western standards, it sounds like mumbling. I listen to hours of Chinese every day, on TV, on radio, and in the street; and I know quite a lot of basic vocabulary; but most of the time, I couldn't begin to transcribe what I hear using the pinyin Roman alphabet spellings - I simply can't recognise the sounds people are making. And there's such a damn limited range of sounds, too (which is why they need the tones in the first place!): only 20 or so initial consonants (many of which are almost indistinguishable), a paltry 2 final consonants (almost indistinguishable), and around 30 vowel and diphthong sounds - giving a grand total (not including tones - which, if you can distinguish them, means in theory you could multipy by 4) of about 350 possible syllables. 350. It takes only a couple of minutes to count them all up in the table at the back of a 'teach yourself Chinese' book. You could scarcely begin to count the number of different possibilities in English: it must run into many thousands. In Chinese, there are only 350. And, let me reiterate, most of them sound very much the same. It's hard to discern any scope for what we think of as 'poetry' in a language like this. Rhyming and punning are commonplace, almost inescapable; but the more subtle interplay of sounds, part-rhyme and near-rhyme, alliteration and assonance, oblique reminiscences of similar words (the mumbling Myrmidons marauded for marmalade, for example)...... these are impossible.

So, this post becomes the first in a long-planned, oft-deferred occasional series on 'Why I decline to learn Chinese' - because it doesn't sound good; because it has no music, no poetry in it.