Saturday, January 31, 2009

Film List - never before seen in China!

All right, I can't authoritatively claim that these films had never been seen by anyone in China before, and that I was the first person to show them here. However, as I have lamented before, most Chinese - even youngsters who purport to be really interested in film, even in these days of cheap, good quality DVDs and readily accessible free downloads - have usually seen no more than a handful of foreign films. And almost always the same ones (Forrest Gump, Titanic, Life Is Beautiful, Braveheart.... yawn...). Almost everyone has seen Waterloo Bridge, Roman Holiday, The Sound Of Music and The Wizard Of Oz (and much of Charlie Chaplin) umpteen times over, because, until a decade or so ago, these were about the only foreign films that could be shown on TV here. And, since the coming of the VCD/DVD age a decade or more ago, most reasonably well-off city-dwellers have been able to keep up with the latest blockbusters. However, there is a huge black hole in people's cultural awareness about foreign cinema here: most of them know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about the films of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. The Godfather is usually about the only film from those decades, the only film of a slightly 'edgy' or difficult character that anyone has ever seen (and just the original, rarely 'Part II').

And most of them, sadly, aren't all that curious to find out about what they've missed. When I was put in charge of a 'film class' in one of my university teaching jobs here a few years back, it was obvious that most of my predecessors had just shown recent blockbusters, and that was what the students expected. But I wasn't having that. Oh, no. I was going to try to educate them.

Here, then, is a list of......

Films I have most enjoyed challenging my Chinese students with

Lawrence of Arabia
(Dir. David Lean, 1962)

La Veuve de Saint-Pierre
(Dir. Patrice Leconte, 2000)

Men With Guns
(Dir. John Sayles, 1997)

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1985)

La Cité des Enfants Perdus
(Dir. Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995)

The Princess Bride
(Dir. Rob Reiner, 1985)

They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
(Dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

Raining Stones
(Dir. Ken Loach, 1993)

Local Hero
(Dir. Bill Forsyth, 1983)

(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
(Dir. Milos Forman, 1975)

Barton Fink
(Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991)

(Dir. Mike Nichols, 1970)

Touching The Void
(Dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2003)

La Battaglia di Algeri
(Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

In The Bedroom
(Dir. Todd Field, 2001)

(Dir. Bob Fosse, 1972)

Bowling For Columbine
(Dir. Michael Moore, 2002)

Dr Strangelove
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Citizen Kane
(Dir. Orson Welles, 1941)

and..... my absolute favourite making-their-brains-pop moment....

2001: A Space Odyssey
(Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

An American colleague of mine and I were both rather keen to see if we could get away with showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but...... well, I lost the job before I could get hold of a copy! That piece of 'subversion' will have to wait till another day. Harold and Maude, too....

Another upsurge

After a couple of days of comparative lull in firework activity, yesterday things went crazy again. There was a fairly significant amount of rat-tat-tat-boom-crash from quite early in the morning, and after nightfall it soon became apocalyptic - possibly even more extreme than Sunday, in that it went on steadily for hours, rather than being concentrated in one great cathartic outpouring around midnight.

There were so many people letting off huge strings of firecrackers on the sides of the streets yesterday evening that the sidewalks were virtually impassable. Time and again you'd find your progress halted by another burst of explosions, and have to wait until your path ahead was "safe" again (some of these longer strings take upwards of a minute to do their thing). Impatience led me to take a few too many chances, scurrying past strings that were not quite finished. I got hit in the side of the head by a large, burning firecracker casing - that I thought for a moment had set fire to my hair. I wasn't being that reckless: I was passing by on the road, a good 7 or 8 ft away, and shielding my eyes. It's really not safe out there.

I gather Day 5 of the first lunar month is considered to be the birthday of Tsai Shin Yeh, the God of Wealth (that's a Cantonese spelling; I haven't been able to find out what they call him up here). Thus, the intensification of firework activity on this day is intended to honour the god and ensure his goodwill during the coming the year - perhaps particularly important in these days of meltdown!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Writing about Tiananmen

This week, having nothing else to do with my time, I finally got around to reading Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (I gather its Chinese title is the more obscurely allusive 土肉, tu rou, which means something like 'flesh world'), and I wrote an extended review of it yesterday over on Moonrat's BookBook review blog. Since I devoted much of an afternoon and upwards of 2,000 words to this piece (quite restrained, really, considering that the book is something like 300,000 words long), I feel I should encourage as many people as possible to go and take a look at it.

Be warned, though: this is the most overwhelmingly negative assessment I have ever produced. I found this novel soporifically tedious and embarrassingly badly written, and would only recommend it - hesitatingly, and with significant qualifications - to people who are passionately keen to learn more about its core subject, the student protests in Beijing in 1989 (even then, my advice would be: skim).

Even as an insight into history (a largely concealed and these days, sadly, largely forgotten corner of history) it is disappointing. On one of the key issues - whether or not there were any shootings in Tiananmen Square itself - the author seems to take an equivocating position; he largely follows the official account that the Square was cleared without loss of life, but makes much of some shooting incidents at the entrance to the Square when the troops first arrive, and later throws in a claim (without any further comment) from a panic-stricken student running from the direction of the Square the following morning that a 'massacre' is then in progress, some hours after the main clearing process had been completed. He does seem to be taking issue with the official death toll in a scene where he suggests that a single hospital has seen well over 300 fatalities, which might put the city-wide total into the thousands (most sources I've seen now seem to agree that the death toll was around 200; although the number of serious injuries was probably at least 2,000, and this total may have been significantly under-reported as a result of doctors and hospitals concealing treatment records to try to protect the victims from further reprisals). I felt frustrated that there was no discussion of how closely Ma Jian was attempting to record the actual events, or what his sources were and how far they might be at variance with accounts given by the Chinese government. In the original Chinese version, I gather, there is a Preface, but I don't know if it touched on these points; and, strangely, it was entirely omitted from the English translation.

However, the one worthwhile thing I took away from the book (something I omitted to mention in my earlier review) was its portrait of the student protest movement and its leaders - which is hardly very positive, but very realistic. There is a natural tendency for us Westerners, with our liberal democratic traditions, to idealise these protesters and their cause, to assume that they had a coherent reform programme to promote and that it was based on concepts of freedom, democracy, and human rights that would be familiar to us. Ma Jian portrays the movement more as a phenomenon of mass hysteria, with the students' motivation - at least early on - being mainly a naive competitiveness and institutional pride ("If Tsinghua University is bringing 1,000 students on the march, our university should bring even more!" "If the Foreign Languages Faculty has 50 students joining the hunger strike, why doesn't the Science Faculty have as many?"). There never seems to be any very clear agenda. Many of the protesters embrace a rabid extremism - forming "suicide squads" determined to put themselves in harm's way, vowing to starve themselves to death or to set fire to themselves, advocating armed resistance to the soldiers who are approaching to clear the Square. Even the more rational leaders who emerge are constantly indulging in petty squabbles with each other (and occasionally suffering allegations of embezzling of support funds donated by the public), and seem to be driven as much by the sudden thrill of power and the flattering attention of the domestic and international media as by any political ideals.

It's not at all a flattering portrait of the movement, but it is nevertheless a sympathetic one, and, for me, it had the ring of truth about it.

I couldn't help but think - though this is not something that Ma Jian explicitly considers in the book - that the students' sudden upswell of political fervour was a very Chinese phenomenon, conditioned (though they might not have realised it, and might not have been comfortable with the fact if they had) by the revolutionary rhetoric of the Mao years. I also get the impression that the driving force for this movement, the root of the young people's anger, was not really any considered critique of the ills of the present government but a legacy of bitterness from the traumatised generation that had raised them. These students had all grown up during the hellish years of the Cultural Revolution. Most of them would have been too young, perhaps, to feel its effects very directly themselves, or at any rate to fully comprehend them at the time; but the physical privations so many of their families would have suffered, and the climate of fear and brutality in which they had spent their early childhoods must surely have left their mark on them. Ma Jian suggests that his protagonist's political zeal is born of the sufferings of his father (condemned to years in a labour camp as a 'rightist'), and of his later discovery of the full scale of the atrocities committed in that era.

Chinese students and young people today, growing up in a period of dawning prosperity and optimism in the '80s and '90s (and, yes, even a certain amount of political liberalisation - not much, but some), don't have that vengeful spark within them to get their motors turning.

Well, not unless their parents or grandparents have been following the wrong exercise programme, anyway.....

No, I don't see much prospect for such a mass movement arising out of the universities again. I'd like to see some kind of commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the '89 movement, but I rather doubt if anything will happen.

Anyway, please go and read my review, and let me know your thoughts - on the book, on my review, or on these wider issues touched on here.

A shell-shocked haiku

Air thick with gunsmoke;
Ringed by distant explosions:
City under siege.

I am a nervous soul. I sometimes wonder if in a previous incarnation I didn't suffer bombardment in the First World War trenches, or some similar hellish artillery barrage. I am acutely sensitive to loud bangs and bright flashes: words like 'flinch' and 'cringe' seem inadequate for the violent physical reaction they induce in me; it is only with the greatest difficulty that I restrain myself from ducking, cowering, or spreading myself on the ground.

The nearly continuous onslaught of fireworks during these two weeks of the Chinese New Year's holiday is very mentally wearing for me. I've endured five days of it now, and the end is still nowhere in sight. Much of the time, I feel like a startled kitten who'd far rather stay at home all day, curled up on the sofa, hiding under a duvet..... trying to ignore that dreadful din outside.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Maintaining one's 'essence'

Moonrat was worried the other day that she might just have imagined that story about Mao Zedong having slept with lots of young virgins to increase his health and strength, and more specifically to boost his longevity, and was asking if anyone could confirm.

I threw in my two-pennorth - I believe the principal source for this story to be The Private Life Of Chairman Mao, a notoriously iconoclastic biography by The Great Helmsman's long-time personal physician, Dr Li Zhishui. Although much of this book is to be taken with a large grain of salt, the 'virgins' allegation seems to be widely accepted, and I gather there are some other sources in support of it.

Just last night I was chatting with a friend who specialises in Chinese history and he contributed another fascinating little nugget to the discussion: apparently, Chinese beliefs about the effect of sex on health and longevity stem from the Daoist tradition, rooted in the concepts of Yin (female) and Yang (male). These vital energies are believed to be released and transmitted through bodily fluids, and are therefore much more easily transferred from the male to the female than vice versa.

In short, if Mao - or any other man - should seek to prolong his life indefinitely by sleeping with a lot of virgins, he must ensure that they achieve orgasm, while avoiding ejaculating himself.

This, of course, put me in mind of the League of Health and Strength.... and also of the batty "precious bodily fluids" theory of Jack D. Ripper, the deranged USAF general who tries to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Russia in the great '60s black comedy Dr Strangelove (a film I love, love, love; if it ain't the best film ever made, it's certainly very close - in the top five or so, I'd say).

Stranger than fiction

A companion piece to this (recently pinched by my mate Tolstoy).

Both of these fine cartoons are, believe it or not, genuine examples of - surprisingly surreal - late Victorian advertising. I found them in an album of reproductions of such adverts which used to be one of the great browsing favourites in my university buddy The Bookseller's secondhand bookshop (often kept under the counter for his own amusement). It disappeared some years ago, alas. I presume somebody must have bought it. I'm disappointed I never got around to doing so myself.

One of its most hilarious, most credibility-straining items was a full page advertisement for a charitable organisation for young men named The League of Health and Strength. I gather that the League had broad aims of improving the physical and moral robustness of Britain's youth, but this advertisement was directed more specifically at the evils of masturbation - or 'beastliness', as it was obliquely termed - and included dozens of testimonials from grateful youngsters who had escaped from this vice and transformed their lives by joining the League. I used to have a photocopy of the page, but it's long since lost now.

Tremendous stuff, honestly. I wouldn't make something like this up, you know.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Beijing firework mayhem - illustrated

The first time I visited Vancouver I happened to find myself arriving there just as an international firework competition was ending. Three or four of the world's largest firework manufacturers had one evening each to mount an enormous, elaborately choreographed display of about 40 or 50 minutes' duration. I caught the last competitor's show, and it was pretty goddamned awe-inspiring.

However, the festivities, I discovered, were not yet over. The next night, when the winner was announced, all the participating companies were allowed to mount a a short recap of their competition display. They were only allocated about 15 minutes for this, and the expectation of the organisers was clearly that they would put together a 'highlights' show. What in fact happened was that each company basically put on its entire display again at triple speed. It was dazzling. It was deafening. The last display in the series had the disadvantage of being considerably dimmed, indeed almost at times blotted out, by the vast fog of gunpowder smoke that had accumulated over the bay in the preceding hour.

I think that is still the most intense, the most over-the-top hour of firework activity I have ever experienced. But major Chinese cities on the Lunar New Year run it very close. In fact, they must exceed it overall, since the whizz-bangery goes on city-wide rather than in a single location and can continue for several hours.

And the really amazing thing about this phenomenon is that it is NOT an organized show. (When I was in Harbin during Spring Festival last year, it did seem that many large restaurants and department stores around the main shopping street of Zhongyang Dajie were sponsoring small displays of rocketry on the side-streets outside their premises; but that doesn't happen in Beijing.) No, this is entirely the result of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Joes (or Zhous, if you will) blowing a stack of money on fireworks (in some instances, I would guess, getting on for a month's salary - certainly over the whole holiday period, it must get to be a pretty substantial expenditure for many people; and probably nearly half of it goes up in smoke on just the one day, New Year's Eve, and perhaps half or more of that in the hour either side of midnight).

So, in case you didn't
believe me, here's one of the best YouTube clips I could find of the festivities here last Sunday night. I particularly like this one because it's shot over Houhai, the famous lake area near where I live.

This one is quite cool, too; and also this much longer one (if you're really starting to get into it now). And here is one that was shot on Bell Tower Square, where I was (yes, one of those shadowy figures in the crowd must be me; but if I can't spot myself, there's no way you can).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The Chinese New Year firework fiesta on Sunday night was really quite exhilarating. I had a fabulous time wandering the streets of my neighbourhood in the midst of all the whizz-bang-pop-pop and taking vicarious enjoyment from the exuberance of the local people's celebrations.

But now..... it just limps on and on and on in exactly the same vein..... for another two weeks.

No sense of proportion, the Chinese.

Chinese people LOVE me! (23)

"Chinese people love me because.... I endure harangues with remarkable good grace."

China (and here I am using the country to stand for its people), as I must undoubtedly have mentioned many times before, is one of the most insecure nations on earth: its people all seem to feel desperately ashamed and inadequate because they are so far short of being the No. 1 Country In The World they feel it is their birthright to be, and they have huge chips on their shoulders about being patronised and dictated to by outsiders; particularly by the colonial powers during the so-called "century of humiliation" from the 1840s to the 1940s, although they are intent on seeing this as a trend that continues to the present day, and thus - viewing all foreign relations through this prism of historical resentment - they are apt to be very suspicious and hostile towards other nations at all times. And every once in a while, they will vent this hostility on any old representative laowai who comes within range.

It is quite astonishing the ease with which the Chinese will take personal offence at the actions or statements of foreign politicians, very disconcerting the vehemence with which they will express this sense of offence, and positively flabbergasting the inappropriateness of the targets and occasions on which they will choose to unleash one of these rants.

Although I like to tease and provoke sometimes in the anonymous haven of this blog, I assure you that I am much more circumspect in my relations with Chinese friends and colleagues, and seldom or never do anything to invite such outbursts. But still they seem to come my way pretty often.

The other week, I was having dinner with a group of Chinese lawyers - all well-educated, well-travelled, mature professional women. And one of them just went off on one at me for about 10 minutes (with her colleagues intermittently joining in a slightly more muted supporting chorus of "Foreigners don't understand China, why don't foreigners keep their noses out of Chinese affairs?").

"Er, well, as a Brit, you know, I don't really associate myself with any remarks made by officials of the US Treasury Dept......"

All that stuff about the Chinese not liking to display strong emotions in public..... well, I think that's mostly bunk. In my experience, they pretty routinely get furiously angry..... over nothing.

But I'm very good at dealing with it. Oh yes. I stay calm. I respect their point of view. I talk them down ever so gently.

I would much rather, though, be able to enjoy a dinner without being subjected to one of these rants.

I relish a good debate, and I'd love to be able to discuss issues of the day with highly educated Chinese people like this. But.... it would be nice to find Chinese interlocutors who were open to alternate points of view (sadly, that is a bit of a rarity). It would be nice if they didn't get so hyper-emotional about these topics. It would be nice if they didn't take things so personally all the time. And it would be nice if they had the good manners not to launch into one of these tirades in the middle of dinner. Oh yes, it would be so nice......

Monday, January 26, 2009

Reclaim the Square! (2)

No, not that Square. What do you take me for?

Just before the Olympics, I commented on how nice it was to have my local square, the rectangular space between the historic Drum and Bell Towers (just under a mile from my apartment), suddenly denuded of tourists and returned to the sole possession of local residents. It's a great spot for people watching, a wonderfully friendly, happy place - when it's left open for the folks in the 'hood to just wander about doing their thing in it.

Sadly, this freedom-to-hang-out is often interrupted, either by the incessant convoys of tourist coaches, or - on major holidays - by the closing of the square while viewing platforms, stages, and sound and light equipment are installed for special shows (to which, of course, only party cadres and other 'VIPs' can get tickets). In the last few years, the western New Year's Eve has regularly been blighted by such 'festivities'. And last year, Chinese New Year's Eve was as well. I had feared a repeat this year, but.... well, perhaps last year's event was part of the pre-Olympic build-up. This year, they did something similar on December 31st, but not last night. Hooray!

The square thus became a major centre for revellers to set off fireworks. For an hour or so either side of midnight, it was just crazy - perhaps even bigger than the last couple of years (although I think 2006, the first year of the lifting of the firework ban in the capital, is unlikely ever to be surpassed - that was just a continuous, all-day barrage).

And there were no accidents, fortunately - although there were some close calls with a few rockets fizzing horizontally across the width of the square and crashing into crowds of onlookers on the other side.

And there were a couple of Chinese guys who conducted an experiment I've long been eager to see. After waiting patiently for several minutes for there to be enough of a lull in the firework lighting around them for them to have a chance to fully unravel the enormous wagon-wheel coil of firecrackers they'd brought along..... well, they discovered that although this string of crackers was very, VERY long, the firecrackers themselves weren't all that big - and were not making themselves very well heard above all the other ordnance being let off in the square. Moreover, the string was burning down awfully slowly. So, they picked up their 10-metre string of firecrackers, looped it up again, and flung the coils on top of the bit that was already lit. Result? HUGE F***ING EXPLOSION!!!!! And seared eyebrows. Who'd have thought it?!

Last night was so noisy that I think it may have damaged my hearing. Really - it was worse than a rock concert.

And it's just starting to get going again tonight.

Where are those earplugs??

Falling from grace...

I'm afraid I lapsed in my adherence to the 'Four Noes' campaign after just a few days - although only on one element: I watched part of CCTV's notorious Spring Festival Gala last night (in a favourite neighbourhood music bar called Jiangjinjiu), although I didn't listen to it (the sound was turned right down, and completely drowned out by all the fireworks exploding in the square outside), or contribute to it (I have been in the audience a few times - but that will have to stop!). Whoops - I suppose I have just broken another of the commandments by talking about it on here.

I can't help feeling that it was a tactical blunder by the promoters of this 'Boycott CCTV' initiative to launch their crusade just before the Spring Festival. CCTV's annual special (first broadcast on New Year's Eve, but then extensively repeated, in part or whole, throughout the remainder of the two weeks of holidays that follow), a cheesy variety show of truly epic proportions (cast of thousands, 4 or 5 hours long, and apt to seem longer), is the biggest TV event in the world - watched, for at least part of the evening, by just about everyone in the country who has access to a television. The advertising slots are regarded as gold dust by manufacturers, and are allocated in a blind auction which generates enough cash to keep the network going for most of the year.

Trying to figure out what's going on with my negligible Chinese can be quite a challenge (the 'international' channel CCTV9 shows a version with English subtitles, but no-one's ever showing that; although last year I did catch quite a bit of it on the other international channel - a French/Spanish service that I can't get on my TV, and whose channel number I therefore forget - with Spanish subtitles..... which worked a little better for me than Chinese, at least). Without any sound at all, the experience becomes positively surreal.

I was particularly fascinated/horrified last night by a long comedy skit that came on shortly before 11.30, in which one of the characters was a screamingly camp waiter wearing a kilt!! I can't even begin to imagine what that was all about. I'm hoping one of my fluent-in-Chinese buddies will enlighten me in the next few days. It appeared to be simply about deriding homosexuals - a rather too common vein in Chinese humour, I fear. And yet the theatrical effeminacy of this comedian was really not so very much more pronounced than the behaviour I see from a lot of supposedly straight Chinese men. I mean, even that Wen Jiabao is rather exaggeratedly fastidious in his movements sometimes, rather elaborately dainty.... And he's definitely at the more macho end of what I'm thinking about! Some Chinese men really are as camp as a row of tents.

I'd better stop now - before I get my visa revoked.

A blockage in the pipes

I use China Unicom, the cheaper and crappier of China's two mobile telephone network providers. Thus, I am used to having a pretty unreliable service at any time of year. However, around the major holidays, things can become completely unworkable. And I rather doubt if China Mobile is all that much better during this seasonal peak of all seasonal peaks.

The problem is mainly with the SMS system. There are supposedly some 300 million mobile phone users in China (I take these figures with a large pinch of salt, because I don't think they take account of the high rates of multiple phone ownership); and on Chinese New Year's Eve almost all of them are sending dozens of messages of goodwill to friends, neighbours, colleagues, old classmates, etc. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of text messages that people in China attempted to send yesterday ran into the billions.

And the system was completely overwhelmed. I got a number of messages coming through late yesterday evening - after a delay of exactly three hours. Several more came through shortly after dawn this morning, although I surmise that they were sent shortly before midnight last night. Many more, I'm quite sure, simply dropped off the network. The call service wasn't much better: a couple of friends I was trying to hook up with last night reported repeatedly getting a 'busy' message on my line, but I hadn't tried to call anyone all night. It does make it rather difficult to co-ordinate your celebrations when the country's entire telecommunications system breaks down for the day.

It's altogether more socially responsible NOT to send any New Year's text messages at all, I feel.

Mind you, I imagine that any country in the world would suffer similar problems with this kind of peak in traffic. Just how much surplus capacity is there in the networks in Europe or North America, I wonder?

A Chinese bon mot for the Chinese New Year

"Better to die for speaking out than live and be silent."

Fan Zhongyan, a scholar and official of the Song court (989-1052)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happy New Year!

What? Again?!

YES - today is the biggest holiday of the year here in China, New Year's Eve in the Chinese Lunar Calendar.

In the Chinese zodiac, the coming year will be The Year Of The Ox, the second in the twelve-year cycle of zodiac animals (the Rat won first place by a despicable subterfuge). In your own animal year (work backwards in multiples of 12 years to see if you are an Ox: 1997, 1985, 1973, etc.) challenge and ill fortune tend to threaten. You are therefore advised to wear lots of 'lucky red' to ward off this possible doom. Red underwear is especially recommended.

I think the Ox is about the coolest of the zodiac animals (not non-existent, like the Dragon... or in imminent danger of becoming non-existent, like the Tiger... or vermin, like the Rat... or irritating, like the Monkey... or merely dull, like the Sheep and the Dog...). Unfortunately, I am not an Ox. But then again, I don't have any red underwear, so perhaps that's just as well.

Gongxi facai, everyone!!

The illustrated blog

For the past few weeks I have been pondering the notion that my blog(s) might one day be transformed into Hollywood blockbusters. And I have therefore been mentally trying to cast such a motion picture, identifying the actors who bear the closest resemblance to the various friends who get a mention on here once in a while (and I haven't been forgetting my regular commenters either).

The fruits of those protracted cogitations (and a couple of hours of picture searching on the Internet yesterday morning) have now been posted over on The Barstool. It's rather an unwieldy thing to try to cross-post here, so please follow the link to go and take a look.

A frivolous Chinese New Year's gift to my regulars!!

(My apologies if you feel you have been unfairly omitted, or if you think that my choice of actor to play you is somehow not flattering enough.)

Another sign?

It is strangely quiet today. It has been for the last several days.

Sure, there have been some outbreaks of firework mayhem - but they've been very muted, sporadic.

Ordinarily, firework activity gets under way a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Chinese New Year (tomorrow, Jan. 26th), and in the last few days it can be quite frenetic. I had thought that this year, since the holiday falls over a weekend (tonight is the BIG night!), things might start up even a bit earlier than that. But so far..... there's been almost nothing, compared to previous years I've been here.

Of course, it might be partly down to the weather. There's been a bitter cold snap this week, with a lacerating wind blowing in from the north-west at a steady 25 or 30 mph from late on Wednesday night to around midday on Saturday. Few people were willing to venture out in that, either to buy fireworks or to let them off.

However, I do suspect that this may be another indication of the meltdown making its effects felt here, dampening confidence, depressing consumer spending.

And then, maybe there's been something of a government crackdown on sales this year, because last year's firework blow-out was so over-the-top - and the behaviour of the populace so brainlessly self-endangering - that casualties numbered (according to one rumour I heard) in the thousands, in Beijing alone.

[And, of course, the conspiracy theory behind there being a firmer policing hand over firework sales this year is, you know, to do with mounting social unrest and the fact that these things are, er, explosives....]

I should enjoy it while I can. Undoubtedly, the city will be lit up like a battlezone tonight - however modest firework purchasing might have been compared to a year or two ago.

Update: Yep, come dusk - the whole place erupted. Probably not going to be getting much sleep for the next few days....

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A song for China...

.... and for all those other nations that are "on the wrong side of history".

Yes, there's sort of a topical reason for posting this clip this week, but actually I've been meaning to do so for ages. This is a song that has astonishingly powerful resonances for me - and yet, until I found this on YouTube some time last year, I don't think I'd ever seen this performance of it before; or indeed, any performance; it's entirely possible that I'd never heard the song all the way through before.

The reason it induces such a swoon of nostalgia in me is that it was used as the theme music for BBC1's weekly roundup of new cinema releases (imaginatively titled Film + last two digits of year in question), a Monday night fixture throughout my childhood and adolescence. I think it was originally presented by a journalist called Iain Johnstone (ah, well, Johnstone certainly covered for Norman a number of times later on, but I gather the early days of the show had a number of different presenters, including Freddy Raphael and Joan Bakewell.... before my time!), but he soon ceded the position to Barry Norman, whose lugubrious wit in the role soon made him quite a media celebrity; he helmed the series through most of the '70s and '80s, and well into the '90s, I think (though I'm not sure if it continues to this day).

I really should not have been able to watch this, since it was usually on after the Monday night film - and thus starting at well after 11pm, and sometimes after 11.30pm and going on until just after midnight. However, staying up LATE - especially for a film - was something that I had come to regard as the best of treats at a very early age, maybe as young as 4 or 5 years old; and I'm sure I made such a pain of myself when denied one of these treats that my parents soon began to give in to me. Once I'd proven that I could still get up in the morning and function at school the next day, they started allowing me to stay up until 10.30 or 11 every night, and occasionally until 12..... even when I was barely 10 years old. By the mid-70s, Barry was a Monday night addiction for me.

The music accompanied the opening montage of micro-clips of famous films, which remained largely unchanged for long periods - although I think they usually updated it occasionally during the course of each year to represent some of the recent big hits. It was also used during the show for shorter montages of the films to be featured that night. It could be quite a challenge to spot all of the excerpts - they were usually without sound and some were subliminally brief; and, as often as not, they were from films that I'd never actually seen. Even so, I usually did pretty well: my competitive film-buffery started early!

And so...... I've heard this tune - especially the opening few bars - countless hundreds of times; yet it's such a catchy little number that it never seems to lose its charm.

Here's the great jazz pianist Billy Taylor playing it - for once! - all the way through: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, his own composition.

And here's a version by the divine Nina Simone (but no video, unfortunately).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Weekly haiku

Constant urban din
Muffled to oblivion:
Cotton wool earplugs.

I always used to hate earplugs, found them almost 'impossible' to wear. I was acutely conscious of the alien intrusion into my delicate ears, and actually seemed to become hyper-sensitive to noise as a result, to suffer a hellish sensory acuity, as in The Fall Of The House Of Usher: I was both tormented by the creaking and rustling made by the earplugs themselves and listening out more intently for the muffled outside sounds that were still faintly but annoyingly audible. I was convinced that earplugs actually made it harder for me to get to sleep.

However, during my recent travails with the builders outside my window, I have taken to blocking up my ears with tiny wads of cotton wool each night - and it has transformed my life! Even the continuous, thunderous tap-tap-tap of my water pipes has been dulled to innocuousness. I think this, rather than my alcohol purge this month, may be the main reason why I have suddenly rediscovered the knack of sleeping 8 hours a night.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Just say NO, NO, NO, NO

I was delighted to learn this morning that it's not just us griping laowai who feel that Chinese television sucks lemons. A group of Chinese intellectuals has just launched a campaign to boycott the state TV station, China Central Television (CCTV), on the grounds not just that it is CRAP, but also that it is relentlessly propagandizing (and not only in its news coverage, but in just about all of its programming - especially its historical drama series).

They propose a 'Four Noes' policy: participants will refuse to watch CCTV any more, or to listen to it, appear on it, or even talk about it. (Hmm, seems to me they might be leaving themselves a window to contribute soundbites to it, though....) From now on, they will behave as though CCTV did not exist. And they encourage the rest of us to do likewise.

Brothers and sisters, are you with me?

I picked up the story from Taiwan's Straits Times, via UCLA's Asia Media project.

Not surprisingly, several of the movers behind this boycott proposal were also early signatories of Charter O8, a document calling for comprehensive reforms of the Chinese political system which was released in early December. (Reaction in China so far has been covered by The Peking Duck and Granite Studio. And welcome newcomer to the China blog scene ULN has discovered some very useful links to full texts of the document, including English and French translations - the only ones that are not [yet] very heavily blocked within China.)

The difference

I really think this might be the most crucial of all gender differences: a chronic insecurity - particularly about physical appearance.

Just about every woman of my acquaintance has at one time or another thrown some variation of the dreaded "Does my bum look big in this?" question at me. A YES is of course completely unacceptable; but a NO is always mistrusted. You can't win.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

All of Chinese 'culture' makes perfect sense, really

In recent months, I have been slacking rather in keeping up my contribution to Moonrat's book review blog, The Book Book. So, yesterday, to assuage my guilt, I wrote a brief piece on 101 Stories For Foreigners To Understand Chinese People, a skimpy introduction to some of the more conspicuous oddities of Chinese culture by Yi Shen Ellis, a Chinese American living in Shanghai (a seasonal impulse buy; sad, self-directed Christmas present).

While the title grates Chinglishly with me (I would have preferred something like 101 Stories To Help You Understand The Chinese if I'd been the editor; but I suppose we should be grateful that it didn't say '....For Foreigners To Know Chinese People'), it's actually quite a readable little book, and might well be of use or interest to people new to the country (though for us long-term laowai it's all a bit obvious). However, I do take issue with what I perceive as the underlying purpose of the book, which is 'soft power' propaganda: seeking to defend - often rather ineptly or unconvincingly - the irrationalities of much of Chinese culture and to extol its purported virtues. Do, please, check out my review for a fuller account.

To be frank, I am very suspicious of anything produced by one of the state-run publishing houses here, and am apt to regard any foreigners who agree to write for them as naive Quislings. I am very wary even of contributing to teaching materials or travel magazines within China, and I don't think I'd go anywhere near a book project like this. However, in 101 Stories I do detect a few possible hints of a redeeming irony: some of the explanations/justifications suggested for the more bizarre and unattractive features of Chinese behaviour are so patently ridiculous that you wonder if the whole thing hasn't perhaps been contrived as a very subtle piss-take.

You will note that one of the examples I mock in my review concerns what to us prudish Westerners seem to be excessive and inappropriate public displays of affection, a rather exaggerated 'friendliness' of men towards other men. I think this might form the kernel of a post I have long been thinking of writing on the subject of whether China is in fact The Gayest Country In The World. I have been inhibited from doing so up until now by an anxiety that some of my readers might chide me for homophobia or China-bashing. I would like to assure you that I have nothing against either homosexuals or China, and I generally strive as far as possible to maintain a neutral or non-judgemental tone in addressing such topics. If I were to suggest that China were The Gayest Country In The World, that would merely be an observation of fact - not in any way intended as a criticism or a slur (and I find it rather sad that many Chinese would be inclined to treat it as such).

There is, I think, a very high incidence of homosexuality here in China, particularly male homosexuality. The reasons for that are rooted in culture (women still tending to be regarded as inferior/subservient, and largely sequestered from male society) and circumstance (a large imbalance in the male-female ratio). In the modern cities, much of that homosexuality is increasingly out in the open. There's also an awful lot of 'effeminacy' in Chinese male behaviour, which may or may not be suggestive of homosexuality (but it does tend to mean that really 'out' homosexuals have to be absolutely flaming to differentiate themselves from the generality).

I see nothing wrong with any of that (well, OK, the rampant effeminacy from purportedly heterosexual men sometimes creeps me out a bit...). Unfortunately, the Chinese government and the Chinese people are still rather in denial about all of this. And so, if there is an edge of criticism in the Gayest Country In The World tag (a phrase that is rather popular with certain friends of mine), it is not directed at the country's homosexual community, but rather is intended to tease and taunt the rest of the population for refusing to recognise and embrace the fact..... that homosexuality is very BIG here.

You see what happened there? You ended up with two posts in one!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Innuendo alert

Yesterday in the recording studio.....

One of the unique challenges - and dependable amusements - of this recording work I do so much of is that most of the time we are reading single sentences in isolation, completely devoid of a context.

Sometimes these sentences will be so odd that it is difficult to imagine any possible context.

More often, they will be so commonplace that they could be used in many different contexts - but without any further guide as to the author's intention (we never see the complete book - illustrations, exercises, questions, answers, etc.; only the the script for the accompanying listening tapes), we have no idea what would be the appropriate intonation.

And then, just occasionally, we get a sentence for which we can rather too readily imagine a context - but it's a context that would not be at all appropriate for teaching basic English to middle school students.

Things like......

"Uncle Peter lets us play with his monkey."
(Oh, really? Is that what he calls it?)


"What about this pretty girl?"
(Whassa matter? You not like any of my girls? You queer or something? Hey, I give you a good price, huh. I give you a deal. Two-for-one, whadya say?)


Oh, I could go on...... but you might start thinking I was some sort of pervert!


The coldest period of the Beijing winter always seems to fall in the week or so either side of the lunar New Year's Day - no matter how early or late in the Western calendar year that may fall. It's somewhat uncanny.

I had been starting to wonder if that observation would be disproved this year. For the past 5 or 6 days, we seem to have been on a steadily improving trend, with the nighttime temperatures not dropping to more than 4 or 5 degrees below zero (positively "mild" round these parts, I assure you!), and the daytime high creeping a half a degree or so higher each day. Today, the temperature was above freezing by mid-morning (and thus an almost "balmy" 7 degrees Celsius above by mid-afternoon). I don't think that's happened in 5 or 6 weeks. If this continues, the ice on the lakes will be melting quite soon. (Erm, it appears to be permanently melted around Yinding Qiao, but that, I assume, has something to do with a sewage inlet. And it looks dangerously thin all around the edge of Houhai. You can't help but wonder what they're doing to maintain an adequate thickness of ice for the mass skating on Qianhai. Are they actually refrigerating it, do you suppose??)

However, there have been rumours flying around for a few days now that it's going to get seriously f***ing cold again around the middle of this week; and now Weather Underground "confirms" that on Thursday we can expect a daytime high of -8. With 10 or 12 degrees of windchill on top. Ouch! I have found Weather Underground's predictions for China more than 24 hours ahead to be wildly unreliable, but.... if this one proves to be correct, I think that will be the coldest day we've had all winter so far. In fact, it will probably be worse than the coldest night we've had all winter. And these Siberian cold snaps usually hang around for at least 3 or 4 days.

Not looking forward to it.....

Monday, January 19, 2009

I grind my teeth again

First, a little background.

I have a nice staircase.

Non-Beijing residents will probably fail to appreciate the significance of that.

I have possibly the only nice staircase in Beijing, perhaps even in the whole of China. Certainly the only one I've ever seen.

Most Chinese staircases are grim affairs of bare grey cement. Any plaster or paint that may have been applied, was applied long ago, and in the most desultory possible manner, so that it is now cracked and peeling; but mostly it's just naked concrete and cement. There are rarely if ever any windows. There may not be much light of any kind, since few people will take any responsibility for replacing light-bulbs in a communal area (though many will not be above sometimes filching them); and the clap-sensitive switches they are usually operated by are frequently very finicky, or fail altogether - leaving you to stamp a mad tarantella for several seconds on each landing before you finally accept that either the switch is broken or the bulb is, and you must grope your way onwards hoping for better luck on the next storey. These drab, poorly-lit stairwells are usually dusty as hell, too; they're often either completely open to the elements on the ground floor, or there's a door which is left open most of the time - so the soil-laden Beijing wind can blow through freely, depositing its silt on the steps. And no-one ever cleans, of course. Landings tend to get colonised with unwanted furniture from the adjoining apartments, and/or with the tenants' bicycles. Indeed, on some levels you encounter such nearly-impassable entanglements that you wonder, "Just how many people live in this apartment? And do they really all have two bicycles each?"

That is your typical Beijing/China stairwell in an apartment block - even in the swanker modern buildings that are intended primarily for foreigners. My building is not that swanky or modern, and is not intended for foreigners (although the rest of the tenants are fairly well-to-do Chinese). I didn't really appreciate at first just how untypically wonderful my stairwell is, because I was so focused on assessing the apartment. But it is wonderful.

There is a decorative stair railing of wrought iron, topped by a varnished wooden banister (stair rails? banisters?). The floor is tiled with gleaming faux marble. The walls are whitewashed. There's a window on every storey. Failed light bulbs are replaced quite promptly, and the touch-sensitive switches - though sometimes a bit fiddly (and you have to take your gloves off) - all work. There are even a few paintings on the walls. Nobody leaves furniture or bicycles blocking the landings (although there is a family downstairs that occasionally parks a huge baby-stroller just inside the door on the ground floor). And we have an ayi to mop it clean for us once or twice a week.

It is a uniquely charming feature of my building, and it adds immeasurably to my quality of life.

Of course, there's a 'but' coming.....

Now, I don't want this to seem like a 'China rant'. I believe I am, for the most part, unusually tolerant and forgiving of the occasionally vexing foibles of the people of my host country. I try very hard not to allow myself to harbour prejudices against any people or culture. There is just one exception I feel justified in granting myself: there is one sub-set of mankind that I find to be almost invariably contemptible and deserving of no allowances whatsoever. I refer, of course, to NEIGHBOURS. (Oh, the folks in the neighbourhood may be perfectly OK; the chaps next door are often thoroughly decent and charming people; but again and again - in many different countries around the world - I seem to have found myself sharing a building with the most vile sociopaths.)

Our staircase ayi does not take out garbage. On a typical Beijing staircase, it might be quite acceptable (though not, I think, a commonplace) to leave ill-sealed plastic bags full of soiled diapers and rancid vegetable peelings outside your door for a day or two, because things are already so grubby and smelly out there that it's not really going to degrade the environment any further. On my staircase, it is not, repeat NOT acceptable. Most residents seem to understand that straight away. One or two who may have suffered an initial blindspot about this have been swiftly reminded of it (usually by the simple expedient of moving their bag of trash away from the top of the stairs [where I or other residents on higher floors are likely to trip over it] back towards the opening of their own door [where they are likely to trip over it]; I have once or twice had to resort to hanging the bags on their door-handle to emphasise the point; I've never yet been forced to tear the bag open and smear its contents all over their doorstep, although I have been mighty tempted once or twice). We get the ocasional random transgression - one or two bits of trash left outside for a few hours, one day at most - but no serial offenders.

Until this new family moved in downstairs. They are fairly regular offenders. And they have just left two very large bags of trash, one of which was full of soiled diapers (I know, I know: my British chums would prefer me to say 'dirty nappies', but being part of an expat community does internationalize one so....), almost completely blocking the stairway, for four whole days. If they hadn't taken them away today, I think I would have gone f***ing ballistic on them.

I think I'm probably going to have to have words.......

Time is running out

I mentioned a year ago (indeed, OMG chose this post as her pick for my Review of the Year over Christmas) the Chinese superstion that it is bad luck to get your hair cut during the first month of the new year in their lunar calendar (I think it's only supposed to be bad luck for men, but the ladies seem to jump on the bandwagon too). This tends to mean that there is an unholy rush on the hairdressers in the last week or two before the Chinese New Year holiday, i.e. NOW.

It's not quite as bad as the rush after the holiday, when it finally becomes auspicious to get your hair cut again; but it is pretty bloody bad. Every day for the last 4 or 5 days, I've looked in at my favoured local hairdressers' shop and found a gaggle of people waiting glumly for a chair (given the inordinate length of time it takes a Chinese hairdresser to do even the simplest cut - 25-30 minutes minimum, even without any 'specials' like dyeing or shaping, even without the almost obligatory pre- and post-cut wash - if there's anybody in the shop still waiting for attention, you can figure that you're likely to be kept hanging around for at least an hour, maybe two; I just can't be doing with that!). Things are always bad over the weekends; and I anticipated that things would be especially bad on this last weekend before the holidays. But even on a weekday, at a usually non-peak time (just after lunch), it seems to be the same story.

Have I really left it too late? If I can't manage to get my hair cut in the next day or two, it's likely that all the hairdressers will have quit the city to return to their provincial home towns for the holidays. And it's then likely to be another 6 weeks before it will be possible to get a haircut again!

It's been 5 or 6 weeks since my last cut, and my hair is uncomfortably shaggy. I just can't let it go very much longer. I think I'll have to try to get down to the hairdressers first thing tomorrow morning, to try to beat the queues.

And if that fails, I may have to dig out my own electric clippers - and GO SKINHEAD.

I used to think this Spring Festival 'no haircuts' tradition was rather quaint; but now it's rapidly starting to piss me off.

A poetic bon mot

"How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

From Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892)

Rather as I am beginning to feel, nearly two thirds of the way through my month of refraining from alcohol.....

Saturday, January 17, 2009

My Fantasy Girlfriend - Debbie Harry

I know, hardly a unique choice, this. As I have commented before (over on the Barstool, here), just about every hetero male in the Western world who was sexually aware in the late 1970s - and certainly any who were entering upon adolescence at that time - has an enduring weakness for the irresistibly cool and sassy Blondie frontwoman. Rarely, I should think, has there been an example of such a universal pop culture phenomenon: everyone I grew up with was in love/in lust with Debbie Harry in 1979 - she was quite simply The Sexiest Woman In The World. And her band was pretty good, too.

She's still looking pretty good now:But, at 63, these days she is just a little bit too old for me. Back then, though, she seemed an ideal age. I found it a little hard to believe that she was already in her mid-30s when she and the band broke big; but it didn't put me off one jot. I had assumed she was in her late 20s, which was still way too old for me - but hope springs eternal in teenage fantasies.

Curiously enough, the late-20s to mid-30s has always been the age range I've found most attractive (and still do to this day... even though it's becoming a tad indecent as I progress into my 40s!). I wonder if this preference was somehow hardwired into me from birth, or if it was conditioned by my huge, indecent crush on the compellingly 'mature' Debbie Harry at this pivotal moment of my development. Probably we shall never know.....

Sexiest Woman In The World (30 years ago).....

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Value Proposition

A concept that still seems to be virtually unknown here in China - certainly in the education business.

Time and again, the attitude of "businessmen" I've met here is "We can get people to give us money for this!"

There's rarely any close attention given to how this idea can be marketed, or how customers can be retained for repeat business, or how the project can grow. It's always just a naive and greedy get-rich-quick idea: "People will give us money for this!"

There is never - repeat, never - any analysis of why people should give you their money. 9 times out of 10, I fear, the 'business plan' rests on the assumption that a lot of people out there are gullible saps.

That's especially so in education, where people seem to blindly believe that almost any course of training, any qualification (particularly if it's in a foreign language and/or obtained overseas) will be an automatic passport to a brighter and higher-earning future.

I've never yet been able to divine any sort of rational system behind the pricing of courses. I rather suspect that the rascally 'entrepreneurs' who set up fly-by-night 'training schools' just pluck a number out of the air. And if they can't find any students for a course priced at that level, well.... they might just give up on the idea, as being not lucrative enough for a go-getter like them; or they might try again, after drastically re-pricing the course. It's not as if they've planned out their costs very carefully in advance anyway, so they can easily re-jig their "budget". All it takes is to cajole your foreign teachers into accepting that it was "an honest mistake" when you quoted them 350 RMB per hour for the teaching when what you meant was 350 RMB for each 1 hr 45 min class; or you can double or treble the class size; or you can pad out your teaching roster with non-native English speakers; or..... There are so many ways to trim costs! And students (and teaching staff, unfortunately) will often put up with just about anything; so there's never any need to think about adding value.

I had a rather depressing discussion this morning about just such a course. The school is intending to relay a live video feed of the classes to 6 or 7 other centres all around China, delivering the course to, potentially, some hundreds of students at one time. The fee being quoted, while a little more generous than usual private college rates, takes no account of the fact that a teacher would in effect be teaching 8 classes rather than just one. (Also, of course, there's the near certainty that they will record it all, and use that instead of live teaching in any future courses.)

Quite apart from the Alice-in-Wonderland economics of trying to keep 600 students happy with one underpaid teacher and a video camera, these jokers had given no thought at all to what this would mean to the structure of the course and the style of teaching: they hadn't reflected on the fact that this would pretty much tie you to a lecturing model, with just about no opportunity for group work, and precious little for any sort of teacher-student interaction. And this is a set of topics that really needs to be taught in relatively small classes with a lot of one-to-one teacher supervision. Moreover, they are hoping to base the entire course - around 250-300 hours of teaching - on a single textbook (which, at a guess, probably only includes enough material to fill about 10% or 15% of that timetable, at best).

The guy charged with setting this course up is a 23-year-old graduate student who: 1) has clearly never taught; 2) has never managed anything before in his life; and 3) has so-so but not great English.

He seems a nice enough chap. He just hasn't got a clue what he's doing. I've taken pity on him rather, and have offered some (FREE!) help in trying to knock the course outline into shape.

What baffles me is...... WHO would pay (presumably quite a substantial amount of) money for a few hundred hours of video classes.... offered by a newly-founded school which has, as far as I can gather, never run this or any other course before.... and 'organised' by someone who doesn't know the first thing about budgeting, course design, or timetabling???

So many Chinese entrepreneurs seem to subsist on an unshakeable - if often baseless! - optimism: if you build it, they will come. I doubt if this school has many students signed up yet; but they honestly believe that so long as they can put a native speaker in a lecture hall with a textbook at the beginning of March, hordes of students will come forward and a tsunami of cash will wash through their door.

Unfortunately, I don't think any properly qualified and experienced teacher would touch this sort of shambolic set-up with a bargepole. They shouldn't, anyway; but not everyone is as ethically constrained as I am.

So..... I fear we'll be in performing monkey territory: not particularly good teachers, who are not very familiar with the material, and who don't care that the quantity/quality of the material is inadequate for the intended teaching purpose.

I repeat, WHO are these people who think watching videos of a foreigner reading from a textbook for 10 weeks is going to do much, if anything, to improve their technical English (even assuming - which is unlikely - that it's good sound and picture quality, and that they'll attend regularly, and that they won't sleep through most of it...) or to help them pass an overseas exam??

Perhaps they mistakenly assume that - as with most of the Chinese education system and far too many of the foreign educational programmes being run over here these days - attendance alone will guarantee an exam pass; that the exam will have a low pass mark, that cheating will be condoned if not encouraged and facilitated (typical in China), and that even if they still flunk, the marks can be doctored later. Sorry - not with an independent examining body, NO. You might be able to get away with a little malpractice in the exam room (Chinese invigilators - sigh!), but the marks will be set in stone; and if you don't make the grade, you will FAIL. Maybe you should reconsider if this is really worth spending your money on.

I see this sort of lazy, dumb, slapdash adminstration of educational institutions again and again and again and again. And the really galling thing is that, most of the time, it really wouldn't be that difficult - if just slightly more expensive - to put together an effective, worthwhile, valuable course that you could sell to students on tangible merit. But folks here just don't seem to grasp that concept.

I weep. I bang my head against the wall. If I had a carpet, I would probably chew it.

Weekly haiku

Not only the legs
Grow stronger with running, but
Also heart, mind, soul.

Yes, I have been tentatively resuming the jogging habit. I'm having to wear a brace on my crumbly left knee, and I'm very, very stiff - but apart from that, it's going well. I am feeling obnoxiously virtuous.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mixing vocabulary

Today in the recording studio - what happens when the 'animal' and 'vegetable' vocabulary testing lists meet:

"Look! The elephant is eating broccoli!"

Maybe they do. I suppose they eat pretty much anything, given the chance. It tickled me, that's all.

Hating it already.....

I am feeling quite glad that the abrupt drying up of all my work means that I may not have any need to take public transport around Beijing again for the next week.

The seething masses on the subway, encumbered with much luggage and making their way towards train and bus stations with a view to returning to their home towns before the start of the Spring Festival holiday (still 10 days away!), already becoming an unpleasant phenomenon on Monday and Tuesday of this week, have grown quite intolerable today.

If you root around my archives, you will find quite a few pieces on the irritations of travelling on the subway in Beijing - chiefly to do with the bizarrely inconsiderate behaviour of your fellow passengers. Luckily for me, I haven't been having to use the subway that much in recent months, and very seldom in the rush hours; so, I had been rather forgetting just how horrendous the experience can become.

Now, I know every country in the world is plagued by the solipsistic arseholes who stop dead as soon as they step through the doors of a subway carriage, even though they have plenty of space to move further inside, and even though they should be well aware that there is a large crowd of people impatient to board behind them. However, in most other countries I've been in, I think, such people are in the minority; often indeed, I'd like to think, a fairly small minority. Amongst the Chinese, it's very nearly 100%.

At this time of year, this vexation is given an added refinement: people who stop dead on the threshold of the carriage and drop all their luggage at their feet. You only need two or three of these gits to do this, and you have an impenetrable barrier preventing anyone else from getting on or off the train through this door. Ggrrrrr.......

I must be patient. I must try to think calm thoughts. The seasonal rush appears to be peaking early this year; by next Friday, the madness should be subsiding. And then we may have a week or two of relative peace and quiet.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

War on.... 'Demonstration classes'

I am in some discussions at the moment about maybe starting some legal English teaching after the Spring Festival holiday.

Unfortunately, my contact suggested he'd like me to do a 'demonstration class' for him, and I did not react well.

In the first place, I find it frankly a little insulting that people wouldn't just hire me on the basis of my CV: I am one of the best qualified and most experienced teacher/trainers knocking around Beijing, and probably about the only one who also happens to have qualified as a lawyer. (And if they don't trust my CV - which wouldn't be that unreasonable, since most people lie their arses off on their CVs over here - they could always check out some references. There are plenty of people I've worked with in the past who would recommend me very highly; but, for some reason, Chinese employers always seem to think it too much trouble to conduct this kind of elementary research into the background of their prospective hires.)

However, my objections to the curse of the 'demonstration class' go much further than this matter of personal pride. I think it can fairly be objected that in most cases this exercise is simply a waste of time, both for the job candidate and for the hiring school. Furthermore, I have, over the years, found an insistence on trial by 'demonstration' to be more or less definitive of a particularly bad Chinese school (or other employer) that I'd rather not be involved with. I have lost myself a few potentially quite lucrative gigs by pointblank refusing a 'demo' request.

There are quite a few Chinese schools out there - really - who shamelessly exploit this ruse, routinely forcing job applicants to give a full 'demonstration' lesson to an actual class of students, thereby getting some FREE teaching to ease their budgets and boost their profits (you perhaps only need to pull this stunt a few times every week to double your administrator's salary over the year).

But if you're not teaching an actual class (which I would always refuse to do, without at least a token payment), what is the bloody point? You usually find yourself sat in a room with 3 or 4 of the office staff - who probably have pretty good English already, but absolutely no interest in the English for Special Purposes or whatever you're being asked to 'teach' them, and who resent being taken away from their work, and are probably bored out of their mind because they get put through this 3 or 4 times a week. It's a completely unreal situation: no learning goals, no class structure, no integration into a wider course: no proper 'students', no motivation, no genuine interaction with the teacher. Very often you don't even have a board to write on.

The things that make a good teacher - clarity of communication (having a good voice and good pronunciation, with no strong accent; being self-aware about the volume and pace of one's speaking, and using vocabulary of an appropriate level for particular students), warmth of personality (being able to make a good connection with students so that they will like you and enjoy your classes), knowledge and experience, etc. - can all be judged much better in an interview, in my opinion. (Not that I'd trust most Chinese education professionals I've met to be very astute even about judging a foreigner's basic level of English proficiency, much less their strengths or weaknesses as a teacher.)

No, the 'demonstration class' is - in most cases* - a complete waste of time for all parties. And I am sworn to trying to stamp it out.

And I've probably just talked myself out of another job.....

* I do allow that if proper parameters are set for the exercise (like being given a clear topic/purpose for the lesson and some materials to use, a reasonable timeframe [neither too long nor too short: 10 to 15 minutes would be ideal, I'd suggest], an actual classroom to work in, and a handful of 'real' students), and it's going to be assessed by an experienced teacher, preferably a native speaker.... well, then OK. But that never happens. And if it did, I'd still expect at least a modest reimbursement for it: to be reassured that the outfit weren't complete cheapskates, and that they weren't trying to pad out their timetables with FREE LESSONS.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A New Year Daily Llama

Since we haven't had any for a while, here is a triple dose of llama cuteness for you. Moonrat, at least, should be happy for a while.

As M de La Bruyère was saying the other day (more or less), "there's no new thing under the sun". I find that is in fact a Monty Python fan website, albeit one that hasn't been updated for a few years now. And appears to be (though, mercifully, the Chinese Net censors are saving me from inadvertently viewing it!) devoted to pictures of Latin American glamour models. And if you click on this 'Daily Llama' you actually find a picture of you-know-who..... or very nearly. (It's not so long ago that the Kafka Boys here in China were blocking Google Image searches for "daily llama". Perhaps they ought to start again. There's nothing so subversive as a punningly mis-labelled waxwork.)

It begins......

Public transport around Beijing today was thronged with people (yes, even more - much, much more than usual) with wheelie-bags in tow, making their way towards the railway stations.

It would appear that the great annual migration 'home' for the Spring Festival Holiday has begun already. Chinese New Year's Day doesn't fall until a week on Monday, but the travel bedlam is starting already.

And I just heard my first firework outside!

I swear this holiday gets longer every year......