Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Saturday, 31 December 2011

A River of Stones: 31st December

Where the ice meets the stones it is rounded and smoothed, tamed by the contours that it fills but where the ice meets the water it is fractured and jagged and full of frozen energy.

Friday, 30 December 2011

A River of Stones: 29 Dec (posted a day late)

Ten skewers of mutton at the barbecue.
Four tiny pieces on every skewer.
I wonder why the third piece on each is always fat.

A River of Stones: 30 December

The old woman sells bright green bitter-bean powder at the corner of the bridge: weighing it with a hand scale, scooping it from a plastic bowl into paper bags. The pungency slices into my sinuses as I pass.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

China: Building Standards

In my "River of Stones" post I mentioned that the observation for the day was about Chinese building standards. The River of Stones project is all about close observation and I have been closely observing the building project in question for some months. I walk past it four times a day, every day and have marvelled every time (not necessarily in a good way) at the construction work. Let me take you through the process so far in some detail so that you can understand why Earthquakes over here tend to demolish whole cities.

When I arrived in Baiyin what was there was waste ground with a wooden fence around it: what the Americans call a vacant lot, I believe. Soon after work began.

Foundations were sunk to a depth of no more than a couple of feet and a thin concrete base poured.

A frame work of metal rods, each about an inch thick and all rather crooked and rusty was created. Where the support columns and beams were to go they were gathered in groups of about eight or nine.

Wooden frames were erected around the rods and concrete poured in to form those supporting columns.

Temporary wooden floors and ramps were put in and the process repeated to form a second storey. There may be plans for a third storey as rods still stick up from the top.

The large spaces were filled with breeze blocks which all have the appearance of having come from a building demolished somewhere else, and the smaller spaces with bricks of a similar second-hand vintage.

Various ground floor window frames have been inserted with the gaps around them also filled with pre-used bricks.The frames themselves are metal and clearly rusty and have also evidently been recycled from a now defunct building.

They have not yet begun the process on the next floor, but they have started construction on a second building on the site which is currently at the metal framework stage.

Now that might sound like an exaggeration for comic effect but it isn't. It's a fair and accurate description of what I have observed. The whole process looks as if they are intentionally building it already derelict. The structural integrity is, to say the least, poor, and unless they are planning to remove a lot of the structure they have created and replace it with something more substantial and better built, they will have created something that good huff and puff from a big bad wolf would bring tumbling down. The worrying thing will come if they skim the outside to a decent standard of appearance because then I will start to wonder about just how safe my apartment block and my school are.
Not that I haven't already.

River of Stones

Some of you may remember that I took part last year in the River of Stones project where people write a small observation of the world around them every day for a month. Well it's happening again. This time my circumstances in the good old People's Republic of China mean that I cannot post the badge for the project on my blog as I cannot even SEE my blog. (Though thanks to the miracle of email I can post to it.)

Howeve,r I can still post a mention. If you would like to read some of the small stones or to take part in the project you can find information at

I will be posting my own writings here (not tagged as I have no way to tag posts via email) and in the appropriate places on the WOWH blog. The other options, creating a new blog or posting on twitter are two of the many many things that the Great Firewall of China prevents me from doing.

I will only be able to post until 21st January as after that I will be out and about in the wilds of China travelling and visiting and with no regular access to a computer. Still enough is, as they say*, as good as a feast.

Here to start us off is a small stone for today. An observation that I will expand upon in another post.

The bricks and breeze blocks look used. The window frames are rusty oblongs. The concrete is decaying and the wood is rotten. They are building the apartments pre-ruined to save time later.

(*Actually, as father used to say. He was a man with many such homilies.)

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

China: Ridiculous

This is getting silly now.
I knew that I had all of January and half of February off but in conversation with the Chinese teachers today I discovered that THEY have all of January and half of February.
I, on the other hand have all of January and ALL of February.

If this job got any easier I'd have to pay them.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

China: Christmas

When I was invited to a Christmas morning service at Baiyin's only church I had doubts about accepting. To begin with I'm not a believer so it sometimes seems a little strange to go to church – but on the other hand I go for weddings and funerals so why not a Christmas service? Of course there was also the matter of needing to get up at seven thirty on Christmas day to be ready to go by eight thirty.  Then there was the question of just how well religious ceremonies are accepted by the Chinese authorities. I had read articles that were some years out of date about the Baiyin police "raiding" the so-called "house churches" where people had set up chapels in their homes.

All in all there seemed to be plenty of reasons not to go.


The invitation came on Friday night and slightly circuitously. We, that is me Michael and Erika, have become friendly with a local family who have an apartment in a block just a few hundred yards away from mine. They had originally invited us a couple of months ago to spend Christmas day with them and we had accepted but on Friday afternoon I had a call from the daughter (who has today decided to change her name from the decidedly odd Elove to the rather more normal Erin) who is the only one in the family to speak reasonable English. She asked if we could change to Christmas Eve as her Uncle Ray couldn't make it on Christmas day. The trouble was we couldn't make Christmas Eve. We already had a meal arranged with the teachers from our school. Half an hour later she called back and said, "Can you make tonight?"


The restaurant was hidden away in an alley just off the main Baiyin crossroads and like a lot of Chinese establishments didn't look like much from the outside. Inside though it was great. It was decorated with Christmas trees and streamers and tinsel and it was very full.

It was a hotpot restaurant complete with its ferocious burner and bubbling cauldron of  lava-like liquid in the centre of the table. With Erin's help we ordered food that didn't include mushrooms and set about our meal.

They are a nice family and good people but there is a drawback to going out to eat with them. They really do like to drink beer. And they really do like to "Gan bei". Chinese people mostly toast this way using little glasses, shot-glass size, but Erin's family prefer to use bowls which hold around a third of a pint. At each toast everyone is expected to empty the bowl completely.

I have found ways round it. I have already established that because of my great age I am unable to drink as much as they do and this time I had the added reason that I needed to work on Saturday. So, as before, I was allowed to "Sui Yi" which roughly means, drink as little or as much as I liked.

The others were not so fortunate and as the pile of empty bottles grew larger the party became drunker and louder. Remaining relatively sober I could view it all with quiet amusement which was mistaken by our hosts for wisdom. At one point Erin's father, Tom, said something to her in Chinese.

She translated.

"He says that Michael is very strong and Erika is very beautiful and that he respects Bob very much."


The conversation, all through the medium of Erin, inevitably turned to Christmas traditions and when it was mentioned that many people attend church on Christmas day she said that her Grandmother was a Christian. There was some rapid conversation in Chinese followed by Tom making a telephone call. He relayed the conversation to Erin who said that her Grandmother would very much like for us to come to the service with her.

All of the reasons for not going ran through my head but what came out was, "Yes, I'd be delighted to go."


On Saturday I had two things I needed to do. First of all I had been asked by our FAO if I would help record some taped dialogues for use in student exams. After that I had my dinner arrangement.

Jane and her friend who is, confusingly, also Jane called at the apartment at three thirty and we went just a few blocks towards the city square and then turned off into one of the mazes of apartment blocks. In one we were ushered into an apartment where one of the rooms had a lot of sound equipment and a very large computer. For an hour and a half we sat reading and recording dialogues with me occasionally correcting mistakes in them. By the time I had finished everything and returned to the apartment we were ready to set off for our meal with the teachers. It was a taxi ride out to the west and the restaurant was excellent. As with Friday it was a hotpot restaurant but this one was the kind where the hot pot comes in individual pots. It had an odd arrangement of ceramic heaters built into the tables at each position – odd because these were completely covered by a table cloth that sat between heater and bowl and somehow didn't catch fire.

The meal was, as always, excellent, and the hot mulled wine that came with it was delicious. It wasn't exactly roast turkey with all the extras and the conversation, even though they were English teachers, was less than free-flowing, but it was a very nice evening which we concluded by going off to a KTV and having the traditional Chinese sing-song until almost midnight when it was time to go home.


At 7:30 my alarm woke me and I took a quick shower. Mike stuck his head out of his bedroom and announced that we would have to go without him as he had had a terrible restless night and was sure that if he went he would simply fall asleep in church.

I strolled down to meet the others.

At Erin's apartment I was met by Erin, her father and mother, her brother, her grandmother and her three year old cousin. Or they may have been some other relatives entirely. Chinese tend to play a bit fast and loose with describing family members – referring to cousins as sisters or brothers, unrelated family friends as uncles and aunts and their children as cousins. It all gets a little confusing.

In any case they were glad to see us and quickly led us to the bus stop. On the bus everyone seemed to be going to this one church. People didn't just stare, they came and talked to us in Chinese which Erin translated.

It was only a few minutes down into one of the few sections of town that I haven't yet explored and the church was an impressive, slightly blocky grey building. It was large and very clearly from its architecture a church. Outside helpers greeted us and showed us in. The huge open hall was already packed with people. A pianist was playing carols and a woman in red and white robes was singing.

We were led right to the front pews and seated. In front of us was a large stage with professional looking lighting and sound equipment. A large illuminated red cross hung on the wall behind it.

More and more people crushed in. Two rows of seats were added in front of us leaving only the narrowest of paths in front of the stage. The congregation were noisy but settled down when the pastor appeared on the stage. He read what must have been a prayer given the frequency of "Amens" that it produced. Then he introduced a choir who came up onto the stage and stood on the banked rows at the back to render "Oh come all ye faithful" in Chinese. They followed it up with a host of other tunes, both familiar and new and then left the stage. A new figure appeared – an elderly man in a purple cardigan carrying a very well worn bible.

He started to read. And read. And read. And read. It went on for about twenty minutes and must have been suitably uplifting for those who understood Chinese. For my part I amused myself playing peek-a-boo with the three year old cousin and giving English names to her and to Erin's brother – Becky and Josh (I decided that as we were in church the short forms of Rebecca and Joshua would be appropriate).

When he finally finished I thought it would be over. How wrong can you be?

Another choir came on and sang a song. Then there were dancers. More singers. More dancers in a very long procession. Two and a half hours passed quite quickly as the colourful parade of carol singers and nativity performers continued. Several times one of the church wardens came and asked the family if Erika and I wanted to sing. We kept politely refusing until it became obvious that "No" simply wasn't permitted.

Forced to perform we went for the song that both of us have been teaching our classes all week – the seasonal, but not exactly spiritual, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Half the hall exploded with flashbulbs as we went on stage and afterwards the other half wanted their pictures taken with us. The service was, by then, over apart from a distribution of food gifts to everyone packages containing bread and eggs and a kind of sour packaged snack. We left the hot room to go out into the refreshingly cold street and catch the bus back.


It had proven to be a very satisfying and entertaining way to spend Christmas morning. I shall certainly make appoint of not turning down any invitations.


Which reminds me, next Saturday I am going to a wedding. It should be interesting.

Monday, 19 December 2011

A Christmas Greeting

For anyone that I may have inadvertently omitted from my general "Christmas card mailing".

It's Christmas time in Baiyin but there's no snow on the ground.

The streets are not all ringing to the jolly Christmas sound.

The main square doesn't have a gigantic Christmas tree,

And I've checked the schedules, there's no Christmas on TV.

Nonetheless it's here, if you look around you'll find it.

There's tinsel round the bar and little tree behind it.

At the supermarket checkouts the girls are dressed as elves,

And there are Santa hats for sale among the clothing shelves.

There may be no carol singers, no chorus of "noels"

But when I entered class today the kids sang "Jingle Bells".

So, a wish from far-off China – have a Christmas that is Merry,

And if you ask if mine is too, I'd have to tell you "very!"


Merry Christmas


Sunday, 18 December 2011

To Put Away Childish Things:Text Based Adventure Games

When I moved house, in June, part of the process, as anyone who has ever done it will know, was to clear out the loft. There was all sorts of stuff up there – books, VHS videos, a red box full of scratched 78 rpm records, a sink unit, a partially completed plaster cast set of twelve inch tall chess pieces, a large sack full of my mother's old handbags, a shopping bag full of old pairs of glasses, a couple of armchairs, numerous assorted empty cardboard boxes, A bag of 00 gauge railway track, a lava lamp, miscellaneous ornaments, a children's snooker table, a fully decorated Christmas tree, a shower unit, bottles of homemade wine from the late 1970s, wine and beer making equipment, assorted cushions, various computer games for various obsolete computers, a box of Rubicks-cube-style puzzles…


Hold on. Back up a moment. "Various computer games"?

Ah yes, various computer games. Those were the days. I had all sorts of different early computers - ZX80, Spectrum,BBC, Atari. Back in those days we'd moved on from "pong" and  monochrome Space Invaders and Asteroids were state of the art in graphics but what I always liked were text-based adventure games. Gamers today are used to astounding graphics, worlds with millions of locations, complex interfaces, on-line group quests and all the other paraphernalia that go with their fictional worlds. They would probably laugh at the quaintness of the old games.

But I remember the days when there were no graphics at all, when an adventure with two hundred locations was colossal, when the interface was that you typed <verb><noun> instructions on the keyboard and waited to see what, if anything, happened, when your adventuring was done solo.

I think the first text adventure that I played was Scott Adam's Adventureland on my old Atari. It's astonishingly crude by any standards. Go North – Take Lamp – Go West – Climb Tree.

Ah those were the days.

I did several of the Scott Adams adventures – Adventureland, Pirate Adventure, Ghost Town, and the Spiderman and Hulk Questprobe adventures. I moved on to Zork and Colossal Adventure and the (astonishingly good) Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy. I ploughed my way through fantasy adventures and science fiction adventures and even a text based Alice In Wonderland Game (which didn't get thrown away with the others: - even though the machine to play it on is unobtainable now, I filed it away, after all a collector is a collector).

I played for hours trying to solve the puzzles – which were sometimes fiendishly difficult. Even getting the damned babel fish into your ear wasn't all that simple when the vocabulary available was so restricted.

I endured the frustration of repeatedly dying and having to start over because I had forgotten to save or, more frustrating still, had saved but hadn't realised that there was some hidden item in a location I passed through days ago that I now needed.


And then I stopped. I don't know why. I probably bought a new computer and the old games became obsolete. I haven't touched a text based adventure since the mid-eighties. In fact I haven't really done any kind of adventure gaming since around then – but I have discovered, doing my usual minimal research for this blog post -  that the Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy game is available – in its original form on line.


Which accounts for the rather abrupt ending that you are about to experience.


Must dash. Vogons are demolishing my house.



Thursday, 15 December 2011

China: monkey hear, monkey speak

On the rare occasions that I sit for any length of time in the office (which is what the staff room is called in China) I witness an apparently endless stream of kids come to see their Chinese English teachers* with oral homework and time after time it's the same drill. The boy or girl will stand in front of their teacher clutching a textbook which has been folded back to the correct page but NOT looking at it. Then the learned passage will be recited. The interesting thing is that there is never any attempt at correct speech rhythms or correct intonation. All the syllables carry the same timing and the same - flat - tone, and the same amount of stress. Pauses between words are constant and exactly the same as pauses between sentences.
The result is that the passage is recited correctly - by which I mean "to the teacher's satisfaction" - but with no evidence at all that the child in question has understood a single word of it. It has been learned the way a parrot learns to say, "more tea, vicar" and with just as much effect. This isn't how to learn a language it's how to learn a parlour trick that is to be trotted out to amaze your aunts and uncles when they come to visit.
Then the child is replaced by another one who recites the same passage with the same lack of meaning, and another and another and another.
I suppose that with so many children to teach something of a production line approach to the task is inevitable, but there must be something better than this.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

China: Shipwrecked!

This week's lessons have been going rather well, though producing some
novel - and unexpected - results.
The details of the lesson vary from class to class but the main
activity is, for the seniors at least, constant.
I divide the class into groups explain that they have been shipwrecked
on an uninhabited island and that before the boat sank (taking with it
all the teachers) they had time to fill a suitcase with useful items.
As groups they have to come up with a list of items and then explain
to me how they chose them.

On Monday one group had a list that included "beautiful women, whiskey
and a pig". The pig, apparently was so that would be able to kill it
and eat it.
Yesterday a group went one better with a list that consisted solely of
"Doraemon, love and condoms". Doraemon is, apparently, an anime cat
who can provide everything they need to survive. Apart from love and
Today didn't provide anything other than a class taking the task
seriously with sensible suggestions. Until I was leaving after the
lesson, that is, when one group handed me an origami boat and told me
that I didn't have to drown with all the other teachers.

Can't wait to see what tomorrow's groups come up with.

Monday, 12 December 2011

It's like painting... oh, wait - it's not

It seems that they have finished painting the Forth Bridge.

Let me propose a new simile.

"It's like painting the Forth Bridge" to describe a task that seemed never-ending which you have now completed.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Chine: Timetables

I've been off sick with a mild chest infection for a couple of days which is now, thankfully, almost cleared up. This morning I received a text from a colleague saying that he was coming to visit me this afternoon. Nice, I thought, to have colleagues that show such concern. I hadn't realised how much concern. At two thirty my doorbell rang and I pressed the button to let him in and unlatched the apartment door. I heard steps coming up to the fourth floor and discovered that it wasn't just Burton who had come to visit, it was the whole department including the guy who sits in the corner and hardly ever speaks. Seven people. If this were a hospital they'd have to take turns.
Moreover they were bearing gifts of fruit.
A lot of fruit.
There were easily three kilos of satsumas and two kilos each of bananas and apples. To eat them all before they go off I'll need to go on an all fruit diet for a couple of days.
We sat around the apartment chatting with me assuring them that I am almost completely recovered and will be back at work tomorrow. This reminded them of something important. They told me that my Friday lessons are cancelled but that I will need to go in and teach them on Sunday. This is because on Friday the students have more exams.
This kind of thing happens a lot. Timetable changes happen regularly and usually with a day or less notice. Lessons are switched from afternoon to morning, from weekdays to weekends or even cancelled altogether with virtually no prior notice. As a teacher in China it's just one of those random things you have to get used to.

As if to hammer home the point, about an hour after they had left I got another call from Burton. Apparently my morning class tomorrow has been switched from 11:15 to 10:20 and my afternoon classes have all been cancelled. This was something he found out about at three thirty today. Short notice is definitely the norm.

Monday, 5 December 2011

China: Another day in Lanzhou

We, that is to say my flatmate and I, had another day out in Lanzhou yesterday, though it wasn't actually out idea. The third of the little group of teachers in the city, Erika, didn't come. Recently she seems to be less inclined to socialise with us and so, when the FAO invited us to have dinner with her and her son at her apartment on Friday night Erika cried off. Richard, the FAO's son was home from University for the weekend and he met us and showed us the way to the apartment. It was the standard Chinese apartment, laid out almost identically to all the others I've seen, including ours. Jane cooked up a pretty good meal and afterwards we spent several hours drinking beer and playing card games. It was sometime during this activity that Jane suggested that, as a reward for our unpaid demonstration teaching she would take us to Lanzhou on Sunday. She would show us around and take us wherever we wanted to go. We could also go out and see her son's University and drop him at his student accommodation in the afternoon.

It seemed a good plan.

When she arrived on Sunday morning it was in an education department car complete with our own driver. Mike climbed into the back with Jane and Richard and I took the front passenger seat. Erika, it seemed, had decided not to come.

The drive to Lanzhou is no shorter in your own car than it is in the bus, but it's considerably more comfortable. We went through the toll gate and onto the expressway and raced through that bleak landscape, even bleaker now than that winter is arriving, than it was before, keeping up a steady stream of fairly trivial conversation.

Once we reached Lanzhou our first port of call was one that I had read about and suggested – the waterwheel park. It's a modern attraction which the authorities are still building. It consists of a moderate sized park in which various waterwheels and the associated contrivances have been installed in a Heath Robinson tangle of chutes, run-offs, millstones and – of course – wheels. At this time of year the only thing missing is the water that powers it all!

The wheels did not turn, the run-offs remained dry, the millstones did not grind. Nevertheless it was interesting.

Just inside the main gate there was a small wheel and a large circular area around which were arranged, on pedastals, small statues of the various emblems of the Chinese years. Mike told Richard when his birthday was and asked Richard which animal was his sign. Richard did a brief calculation and informed him that he was born in the year of the tiger.

I gave him my birth date.

I was unsurprised to learn that I am a cock.

We strolled around the park. In addition to the, currently static, waterwheels it is filled with slightly oversized and stylised statues representing the Chinese way of life of a bygone era. They could hardly be called beautiful, some of them border on the grotesque, but they were original and fascinating. Across the river, a decorative dragon ran along the entire length of the far bank. We could see it constantly as we strolled through the park which runs in a narrow strip parallel to the water. At the end of the park it is possible to look at the main road bridge over the river and here the dragon rears up with its head towering above the traffic and staring into the face of a mirror image dragon that approaches the bridge from the other side.

Looking the other way we could see the constant signs of new building and civic expansion that seem to be the defining mark of modern China. It was a bitterly cold day. In our warm clothes we were snug enough but as I took picture after picture a bone-deep ache crept into my exposed fingers and, though I was having a great time, I was quit glad when we finally turned around and made our way back to the car.

The park, even now, is a quite fascinating place and I shall try to make another visit when the summer comes before I leave Baiyin and see it in action.

From the park we headed into the city for our planned appointment with something far more important than mere sight-seeing – Pizza Hut!

I have been in Baiyin now for three months and though I vary my Chinese food to the extent that I can with home cooking there are a great many foods that I miss. I had been told that there was a pizza restaurant in Lanzhou and when I mentioned this to Richard at dinner on Friday he showed us an advert for the place. It was, we were delighted to discover, a franchised branch of Pizza Hut. We drove towards the shopping street where it was located. The streets around the area were narrow and filled with traffic and people. The driver manoeuvred skillfully through them. Here and there, as with Baiyin, there were token signs of Christmas. At a point opposite a small, raggedy Christmas tree bedecked with half a dozen pink and yellow baubles, he stopped and let us out. Richard led us back a few yards to the junction and there, wonder of wonders, was Pizza Hut.

We went in and it was immediately obvious that it's a popular destination. There was a waiting list and the customers were milling about in the small, but warm, reception area. Jane spoke to them in rapid Chinese and handed a ticket to her son.

"We are B18," he said, "There are about twelve people before us."

We didn't care. We would wait.

About thirty minutes later, our turn came and we were showed in to a table. The décor was like any other Pizza Hut and the staff were dressed in festive Christmas waistcoats with green bow-ties and Santa hats. Pleasant, upbeat western pop music was playing. The menu was in Chinese and English and featured everything you would expect – pizzas in all varieties, pastas, soups, salads as well as other things that you wouldn't expect – Jambalaya, assorted Chinese rice dishes.

On the wall was a large sign that read "Happy Moments".

Happy indeed.

The meal took considerably longer than we had expected so that by the time we finished it was already late enough that we needed to take Richard back to his University. In her teens it had also been Jane's University and we drove out along the river road, past the Lanzhou mosque and out to the west, towards Lanzhou Northwest Normal University.

As soon as we walked through the gates there was no mistaking the familiar campus feel of the University. I haven't been on a campus for more than thirty years but there is something about them that is unmistakeable. Students wandered about with armfuls of books. Academic buildings towered above us. On the playing fields a game of football was under way. Groups of students, both small and large, were everywhere. I felt a brief nostalgic longing for my own student days, so long ago.

Richard and Jane showed us round, pointing out the places that were important parts of their lives. It was an interesting lesson in change as time after time Jane told us what buildings had been in her day and Richard told us their current functions.

It's a large campus with many blocks of student and teacher accommodation. It took us almost an hour to walk around it and then it was time to leave, time to let Richard go on his way back to his own accommodation and time for us to be on our way back to Baiyin.

Lanzhou is a much more varied and interesting city than Baiyin, though, as we found out last time when we tried to walk around unguided, it is better seen with someone who knows it well to show you around.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

China: Animal instinct

There will be much more about my day out in Lanzhou later but I can't resist posting this now.
At the waterwheel park there is a display of the Chinese zodiacal animals - you know, year of the rabbit, that kind of thing.
Mike and I asked our Chinese friend, Richard, what animals our birthdays fell on.
Mike it seems was born in the year of the tiger.
I, on the other hand, am a cock.

Monday, 28 November 2011

China: Hello, Mister Policeman

One of the message boards I post on has mentioned the new OED "word of the year" which is actually the phrase "squeezed middle".
I just thought I'd mention here my own personal word of the year.
It isn't new. It isn't uncommon. It isn't a recent coinage.

It's "Hello" and it's my word of the year because I have approximately 1200 students who all say it to me every single time they see me. And I say it back every time. If there is a lifetime limit on the number of times a single word can be said, I exceeded it in about week two of term.

Incidentally today my warm up activity with my senior classes was getting them to mime various jobs. I split the class into three groups and took an actor from each. I took the three actors to one side and gave them three different jobs. Then I let them act them out for their groups. As I walked back across the raised teaching platform after briefing one group one of the students caught my arm, twisted it up behind my back and pushed me down towards a desk. To a man his entire group instantly, and correctly, shouted "policeman".

I can't imagine any of them ever doing something like that with their Chinese teachers but I thought it was hilarious. The whole class had to stop for a couple of minutes to compose themselves and stop laughing.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Spell-Checker craziness

In a post on a message board, when I used the word when I typed de-incentivised it was underlined by the spell-checker in spite of being a perfectly good word and the suggested alternatives were



e-incentivised, none of which look like real words.

But it got stranger. When I posted a humourous aside mentioning this fact, all of these suggested alternatives were also marked as wrong, in spite of being the very things the spell-checker told me to use. Intrigued I probed further and the suggested list of alternatives for these words included


none of which got underlined but most of which don't look like real words to me either.

I love spell-checker!

Friday, 25 November 2011

China: Everything works, but nothing works well

Since coming to China I have been reading a few of the other blogs
that are around about the country. One such is "Seeing Red In China"
( which is usually interesting and
sometimes resonates with my own experience. One recent post
seemed particularly appropriate. The author of the blog may have more
experience of China than I do but in this instance it aligns
It reminded me that there is a post I've been intending to make since
I got here.
And this is it.

He writes about the difficulties of keeping warm in winter in China.
It's certainly a problem. I live in a nice enough apartment but even
now, before winter has got properly underway, it can be unpleasantly
cold. The problems are precisely as he describes them –
badly-designed, concrete buildings with extremely poor thermal
efficiency and no insulation, windows that don't seal properly,
extractor fans above the stove that lead out through a hole in the
window around which there has been no attempt to form a seal.
Heating in Chinese cities is rather strangely organised. We were told
that our heating would come on some time in mid-November and so it
did. We assumed that the building supervisor had done something to
turn it on and so, when it went off again a few days later, we assumed
that there was a problem in our apartment and reported it. Then we
discovered that the whole block had no heating and we were told that
it would return soon. But that too wasn't quite accurate. At school
the heating was off and I discovered from conversation with one of the
teachers that heating in the whole city was off. I have no idea at all
of the mechanics of how it all works but it seems that city heating is
centralised. It's on everywhere or off everywhere.
It was turned on again a couple of days later.
Actually there is another problem, at least in our apartment, which is
the rather odd placement of the radiators. To begin with all of them
are built into the walls and covered by wooden grills. This means that
a substantial proportion of their limited output goes in heating the
wooden grill and never makes it into the room. The one in the living
room has been cunningly placed so that it is also covered by the
curtain, whether open or closed, so that more heat is lost in just
warming up the fabric. The other rooms scarcely fare better with both
the bedrooms having the heater placed behind wooden baffles directly
on the outside concrete wall and directly below those very inefficient
windows. Given that they only just warm up anyway almost none of the
heat goes into actually making the rooms comfortable.
The strangest of all is the one in the kitchen which is under the
sink, behind all the sink plumbing and behind a lot of buckets and
bottles that the owner of the apartment has left stored there. I'd
move them if I thought it would do any good.

All of this is a part of a bigger problem with domestic life in China
– namely that everything works but nothing works well. The wet-room
shower works except that the lady downstairs keeps complaining that
water leaks into her bathroom. I've resealed all the tiles and stand
in a large bowl when I shower but some still gets through. When I wash
my clothes there is, in an uncanny echoing of days at home with my
father, the complication that the automatic washer only works as a
dryer and the clothes must be first washed in a small and ridiculously
clanky machine that just whirls the water and clothes around until
they are tied together in a large, tangled up ball. Then they have to
be transferred to the larger washer for drying. As the smaller washer
has to be filled from the shower which is supplied from a large water
heater on the wall and there is only one power socket for all three
appliances, this can be a time-consuming process.
The toilet flush works but sometimes won't stop flushing without a lot
of jiggling with the handle. And some of the pipes that run to it have
a slow drip that I collect in a bowl and empty every couple of days.*
Also in the bathroom I hung a wet towel on the rail only to have the
metal bracket sheer off because of the poor quality of metal used to
make it. It took about ten pence to buy a new one and about ten
minutes to install it but a rail that won't hold the weight of a wet
towel seems pretty useless.
On the electrical front the apartment was equipped with a DVD player
but nothing I could do would get it to actually send a signal to the
TV. My portable would hook up to the TV but would only play a small
percentage of the Chinese DVDs. So, as they are cheap, I bought a new
one which works. Of course it leaves the problem that Chinese DVDs are
all pirate copies that may or may not have menus and may or may not
play properly,
And it isn't just apartments.
Tills in shops are prone to breakdown at which point the shop simply
stops trading until they can get them fixed.
The electricity, gas and water supplies are subject to random
disconnections which may be in a single building or may, like the
heating, affect the whole city.
Traffic systems can be described as chaotic at best with drivers
largely ignoring any conventional rules of the road in favour of an
every-man-for-himself, approach to traffic control.
And somehow it all manages to work in spite of the problems. It's just
that none of it ever seems to work well.


*Since I wrote this, the flush has now stopped working and we flush
the toilet by filling a bucket from the tap.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

China: Another day, another demonstration

So, last week, Jane had us teaching demonstrations at more schools. We
don't actually get paid but I suppose the experience and the free
lunch are reward enough.
Friday was just here in the city teaching at another of the Middle
Schools. The class were hand-picked Junior One students and were
bright and active and the lesson went smoothly and was very
Saturday was rather different.
To begin with the school was an hour's drive away in Jingyuan County
Middle School Number 2. I'll skip right over the drive itself, apart
from mentioning that if I were a religious man, I'd have been praying
very hard for us to survive the trip. There was a reason for some of
the suicidal haste, the driver had arrived late and we were a long way
behind schedule. With the lesson due to begin at ten twenty, I was
ushered into the building at ten-nineteen.
And a half.

One difference was clear right away. This was Senior Two class in a
provincial school and they were weaker than the Junior One class I'd
had yesterday. There were one or two strong students but on the whole
the class was weak, very weak.
I went ahead with the prepared lesson anyway and it actually worked
out well enough but it's obvious that the standards vary greatly
between big cities and small towns.
Not that Jingyuan is all that small. It's a decent sized place that
looks as if it might be nice enough to live in if only it wasn't quite
so difficult to get to and from. After the class I had an hour
chatting to the English teachers who were articulate about the Chinese
education system and inquisitive about the UK one. The shortness of
our school day, the small numbers in our classes and the
inadvisability of our not beating the children were all discussed.
They seemed astonished at how our child protection laws work and
incredulous that it's possible to teach at all under such conditions.
When we had finished I was taken by taxi to a very good restaurant
where I managed to eat a meal, including the nicest lamb I have ever
tasted, with only a few smears and splashes getting onto my clothing
and then for a walk around the shopping heart of the town which was,
in many ways, more interesting and colourful than Baiyin. The main
square is surrounded on three sides by colonnades under which people
were sitting playing mahjong or chess or cards. There are small
fairground attractions for the kids and a row of about fifty open-air
pool tables for the teenagers. Two hoop-la stalls had been laid out on
the ground. At one kids where trying to pitch wire hoops over various
cuddly toys while at the other adults were doing the same but with
packets of cigarettes.
In the centre of one end of the square is a large stage where, I am
told, there are regular free public theatrical performances while
facing it at the opposite end is the beautiful classical Chinese bell
Another difference was the prevalence of other Chinese ethnic groups.
Mongolian and Tibetan faces were very much in evidence where the most
of the people in Baiyin are from the majority Han Chinese. There are
some traders in the markets and a substantial Islamic group but the
faces on the street are usually Han. In Jingyuan there was a much
greater ethnic diversity to be seen.
After an all-too-brief stroll around it was time to head back.

The drive back would have been accompanied by more prayers had I not been
a) still the unbeliever I was on the way out
b) distracted by the video GPS which when not showing the location was
showing a video of almost naked pole dancers writhing to a throbbing
disco instrumental.

The driver was fortunately not paying it much attention, being too
busy playing chicken with oncoming vehicles, chattering in rapid
Chinese on the telephone, lighting and smoking cigarettes and
occasionally turning around to speak to the people in the back of the
Nevertheless we made it with bodies intact, though with shattered
nerves. Another day, and another demonstration lesson completed.

China: Pool and Face

I'm sure you are all familiar with the Chinese concept of "face" which
is all about earning respect. After all we use the expression "loss of
face" sometimes in English. Face crops up in all sorts of
circumstances but who would have thought that it would crop up in a
game of pool? Well, it does, and it has twice now.
The circumstances are similar enough to just generalise.

You meet a new Chinese friend.
You talk and in the conversation mention that you pass some of your
time playing pool.
He says that he plays too and invites you to a game.
You go to the pool hall and start to play and it is immediately
obvious that he is a much better player than you are. Hell, his
girlfriend is a much better player than you are. Both of them can
control the cue ball with top-spin and back-spin and side and the
object balls slam into the pockets with the force of a steam-hammer.
Your own efforts look pathetic by comparison.
As you play you notice his game going off.
It becomes clear that he is throwing the game so that you can win.
He wants you to win because he sees you as the guest.
Of course you see him as the guest so that you start playing below
your skill level so that he can win. After all, when in Rome you do as
the Romans do.
The game proceeds at the slowest pace imaginable as everyone tries not
to make it obvious that those millimetre misses are intentional.
Half an hour after it should have ended the 8-ball finally drops into
a pocket and the game is over.
Face is earned by everyone because everyone has been so politely
trying to let the other guy win.

Of course next time out things are different. You have already
established that you are friends and so you can play properly. Face no
longer comes into it.
And you get soundly beaten.

Monday, 21 November 2011


Gary Longden has included my blog in his five nominations for the
"Liebster" award, a kind of chain mail project promoting blogs with
fewer than 200 followers. I'll put a bit more detail about that when I
add my own five suggestions tomorrow. (Or the next day, definitely
before the end of the week. Hey, I read a lot of blogs, choosing five
will be hard.)

Anyway, what I wanted to put here was what Gary wrote in his nomination.

"combines the absurdities of Stephen Merchant's "An Idiot Abroad" with
the turn of phrase of Martin Amis and the sureness of observation that
only foreigners can make in the spirit of Bill Bryson. It is quite
brilliant – and instructive. "

I think we have a winner for the position of blurb on my next book cover.

Thanks Gary. The cheque is in the post.

Gary's blog can be found at

Friday, 18 November 2011

China: Some more random observations

A few more random observations that may sound judgmental but aren't
really meant to be. It's just that when giving factual descriptions of
some things it's hard to avoid sounding that way. Judge for yourself.


Smoking is allowed everywhere in China.
No that's too weak. Smoking is encouraged everywhere in China and as a
lifelong non-smoker I sometimes find it difficult to cope. Virtually
the first thing that happens in any social encounter is that someone
offers cigarettes. Teachers smoke in schools. Doctors smoke in
hospitals. Barmen smoke in bars. Shopkeepers smoke in shops. Customers
smoke in department stores and supermarkets.
In restaurants, before you even sit down, open packets of cigarettes
are placed on every table by the waiters and people smoke before,
during and after meals.
Well... that's about half right, because by people I mean "men". You
never see women smoking in public, and I do mean never. It is
considered to be a sign of loose morals or even prostitution. Int the
three months I've now been here I have seen women smoking exactly
twice. Once I was in a bar in Yangshou and a group who clearly were
prostitutes were sitting smoking in a corner. The other time I was in
the pool hall, here in Baiyin and there was a teenage girl playing
pool with her boyfriend and both were smoking. All of the men and none
of the women. It's a very odd aspect of the culture.

Children and Sanitation

One oddity is that most toddlers walk about in specially designed
trousers which are completely open at the crotch. When they want the
toilet, their mothers simply find a patch of dirt and squat them down
without removing any garments so that they can do it there and then.
It's far from uncommon to find piles of human poo on pavements or in


I've mentioned before the adult-sized playground-style equipment that
is dotted about the city. What I haven't mentioned is the peculiar
habit, especially among the elderly of walking backwards. In the park
I often see old men walking backwards and either glancing over their
shoulders to see where they are going or being guided by a
forward-facing friend. I sometimes also see it on the crowded
pavements on my way to work. I'm told that it's a vey good form of
exercise which brings me to my next point...

Odd health advice

I'm constantly offered health advice among which has been

- never drink cold drinks, they are bad for your stomach
- do not walk about your apartment without shoes you will get a fever
- eat plenty of dog it is a hot meat that is good for the stomach
- do not eat too much donkey because if you have had an illness in the
past donkey meat will bring it back
- do not eat after seven O'clock in the evening, it is very bad for you
- wear lots of clothes, even in the hottest part of summer because if
you do not you will catch a cold

And while I'm doing lists, here are some of the...

Things we have confiscated from students

Electronic Games
Packs of Cards
Assorted pieces of origami
A desk lid
A whole desk
An electronics circuit board
A basketball
A screwdriver
Food and drink
A torch (flashlight)
A pair of spectacles to which cardboard tubes had been taped making
strange binocular like things.
Love letters
An extra pair of shoes

All of these were confiscated because they were being played with
during lessons. Occasionally I have also made the students stand up at
the back of the class to separate them from the friends they were
talking to or messing about with but that's my only punishment which
brings me to my final list...

Cruel and Unusual Punishments

Chinese teachers have no restrictions on the punishments they can hand
out to the kids. At first I thought that the kids cleaning the toilets
were being punished but apparently not. That's actually considered a
privilege. However among the actual punishments I've witnessed are

standing at the back of the class for a lesson
standing facing the wall at the back of the class for a lesson
ditto and ditto but at the front for added humiliation
ditto but for a whole day*
being hit with an open hand
being hit with a closed hand
being hit with a stick
having the chair confiscated and being made to squat in a sitting
position without a chair for a whole day of up to nine hours (for
forgetting a homework book!)*
being given double homework (which doesn't sound so bad until you
realise that single homework keeps most students busy until midnight)
standing in the front centre of the class, at the board, facing the
class while the teacher ignores them and works around them
having items confiscated and not returned until the end of the day
ditto but the end of the week
ditto but the end of the term
ditto but never

I'm sure there are others, the teachers are quite creative in their
cruelty. Incidentally when I walk into a class where students are
suffering the punishments I've marked *, I instantly rescind them for
the duration of my lesson and tell the students that if their other
teachers complain, send them to see me and I'll argue it. It hasn't
happened yet because the moment my lesson is over they return to their
punishments knowing that if they don't the next one will be worse.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

China: Vocabulary List

Today, as I was laying out my things, I saw, on the desk of one of my
students a list of phrases that they had been given to learn. It ran
to about 150 phrases and, from idle curiosity I picked it up and took
a glance. Remember that students are not required to understand the
appropriate use of the phrases or even the meanings of the phrases,
simply to memorize them for a test.
It was a curious document.
It started innocuously enough with a few phrases like "Hello, how are
you?", "It's good to meet you:, "I haven't seen you for ages" and so
on. Some of them were a little more colloquial - "How are you doing",
"Hi, what's happening?", "I llike your style.". Others were more
unlikely, at least they were unlikely to be of frequent use, for
example "Please say 'hello' to your mother, for me."
Things got a little weirder as it moved on to phrases of endearment. I
suppose, "I love you guys" might come in handy but in what
circumstances is someone learning English in China likely to need, "I
adore you with all of my heart" or "I'm simply crazy about you"?
I always thought vocabulary lists were supposed to teach you common
words and phrases.
Or indeed useful idioms. Is "money will come and money will go" really
a useful idiom? Or for that matter an idiom at all? Similarly, even
after I had inserted the missing word 'free' in the middle of it,
would anyone say, "There is no free supper in the word" instead of the
much more common (though strangely absent from the list) "there's no
such thing as a free lunch"? Personally I also have doubts about
whether or not "tough job, tough day" is actually an idiom or of the
slightest bit of use to them.
It get's stranger though as you move further down the list.
Number 80 was "Zip your fly" which seems an unlikely inclusion but
number 89 stopped me dead and prompted me to instruct them that it's
really rather offensive and they shouldn't even consider using it.
Why, exactly, would anyone consider "that's just bullshit" a suitable
phrase for this kind of list?
Unless it was actually meant as a description of the list itself.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

China: Mahjong

The first time I came to China I bought a lot of souvenirs. One of
them was a Mahjong set. It was a very nice Mahjong set – good heavy
tiles, high quality leather case, the works. And it's been sitting on
display in a glass case in my bedroom ever since – over twenty years.
And I've never got round to learning to play the game.
Last night I did,
I was invited to go for a meal and then to the local Mahjong rooms
where a friend of our FAO would instruct us in the game. I'm not going
to go into the details of the meal beyond pointing out that my normal
moderate skill with chopsticks deserts me entirely when faced with
noodles so that I end up wearing more than I manage to eat. Nor am I
intending to discuss how you actually play the game though I will say
that it's relatively easy to pick up the principal -even when
explained in Chinese – but rather difficult to play well. I don't even
want to talk much about the night out beyond saying that it was a
thoroughly entertaining one and I had a great time.
No, what I want to talk about is the table.
At the Mahjong rooms the five of us – Me, Mike, Erika, the FAO Jane
and her friend were led into a separate room which was furnished with
two small glass trolleys for drinks, four comfortable chairs and what
looked like an unremarkable square green baize table. Closer
examination revealed a number of odd features about the table. To
begin with, in the centre there was a circular glass plate below which
there were two dice. This was held in place by a brass rim which had a
number of lights and buttons on it – four square buttons – one facing
each chair, and two circular buttons.
There also appeared to be a number of grooves in the surface parallel
to the edges.
The three of us, and our instructor sat – Jane remained standing. I
was a little puzzled. I have seen lots of people in the streets
playing Mahjong and it is a noisy game that involves 136 heavy tiles
that are clattered about the table with much vigour and speed. I could
see no tiles.
As the opening position of Mahjong is that each player has in front of
him a wall built of a quarter of the tiles, this was odd. Then I
discovered the true Genius of the table. Our host pressed one of the
circular buttons and the grooves in the table folded back and from in
the depths the already assembled walls rose smoothly into view in
front of us. We proceeded to learn the game. When we were sufficiently
instructed in the basics he pressed the button again. This time the
whole centre ring rose from the table so that we could push the tiles
from the game into the gaping hole below it. That done the ring
lowered it self and a new set of tiles appeared from the grooves while
there was a great rumbling and banging from the inside of the table as
the old tiles where shuffled and rebuilt automatically into walls
ready for the next game.
It was all damned ingenious and every bit as interesting as the game
itself. Erika videoed the whole process and when she lets me have a
copy of it I'll try to post it here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

China: Drinking Culture

There is no denying that as a foreigner living and working in China I
find the Chinese a very hospitable people. Colleagues, neighbours,
friends of friends are always wanting to take us to dinner and it is
near impossible to actually pay for anything when we go. The food
arrives in quantities that we couldn't eat in a week and in an array
of varieties that is bewildering. Conversation, inevitably conducted
via whichever of the party has some English, is almost exclusively
centred around finding out all about us. I, along with my two fellow
foreign teachers, get seats reserved for the guests of honour. If we
let our plates fall empty for a moment we are immediately encouraged
to choose more food and fill them again.
The only way to pay is to sneak away unobserved and do it before
anyone else can. Our hosts will also usually take us and return us in
taxis which we are also not allowed to pay for.

And then there is alcohol.

Alcohol is an important part of the social ritual and at meal times
comes in two forms. There is "pijiu" which is beer and there is
"baijiu" which is a white spirit that burns tongue, throat and sundry
internal organs as you drink it. Fortunately baijo tends to be served
only at slightly more formal meals with friendly meals sticking, for
the most part to pijiu.
Nevertheless beer presents some problems too. To begin with, it is
usually drunk from shot-sized glasses and tossed back as shots are,
the glasses being refilled with incredible speed and efficiency. The
Chinese hosts at any meal seem to take it as a matter of pride that
they can render their western guests drunk and insensible in the
shortest possible time. So a meal for eight people will initially be
accompanied by at least double that number of large bottles of beer,
most of which will find its way into the western glasses first. More
beer will arrive periodically throughout the proceedings. To aid them
in this quest for your inebriation they will fill the glasses to the
very brim time after time and with a cheerful cry of "gan bei" down
it in one. "Gan bei" literally means "dry the cup".
We were recently invited to a meal with a local family who come from a
region with a slight, but significant variation. The beer was poured
not into shot sized glasses but into the bowls normally used for rice
which hold about three times as much. The toasting went on at the
normal rate but with three times the beer volume each time.
I decided to try a tactic I had come across on another blog, but first
I need a word of explanation. I am double the age of either of my
colleagues and while I like to consider myself youthful and energetic,
there is no escaping the fact that I do look older – and the Chinese
respect age. This can be a source of annoyance – as when I was asked
if I would like to play snooker at the senior citizens' centre, or as
in the frequent solicitations after my health – but it occurred to me
that it could also work for me. The other blog had suggested that all
you need is a face-saving excuse and you can cry off some of the
constant toasting. So when the bowl was first filled up I said that I
would love to drink with them but because I am old I cannot drink as
quickly. They accepted this without a murmur of complaint and
subsequently left me to drink at my own pace. They even taught me the
alternate toast, "sui yi" which means "as you wish" which, under
banqueting etiquette allows you to take part in the toast but,
crucially, without requiring you to drink it all in one go.
After that the evening went well with my colleagues being the focus of
the toasting and me being the focus of the occasional sour look from
them as I drank "as I wished". Occasionally I replaced my happy "sui
yi" with a "gan bei" which seemed to please my hosts even more – the
old fellow making an effort. I found it all pretty funny.
In friendly gatherings such as this was there is an additional hazard.
Drinking games. Two are commonly played and the apparently childish
nature of them is ignored as they proceed in earnest. One is the
children's game rock/paper scissors ( shitou -scissors, jianzi
-fabric, bu -rock). At each turn the loser is expected to down his
glass of beer just as in a toast. The other is a slightly more
complicated variation of the same thing with finger counting
substituting for the familiar gestures. Given that everyone plays
several rounds against everyone else it can result in the losers
becoming intoxicated rather quickly. Once again the age card got me
out of too much of this.
Now that I've discovered the tactic I shall keep it in my armoury for
all future occasions.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

China: Demonstration Lessons

"What," I said, with an element of desperation in my tone, "Is this music?"
The music in question was playing over all the speakers in the school,
a trickling, tinkling piano piece.
"It's the music for the end of the lesson." offered one of the bolder girls.
"No," I explained, "There's a bar I sometimes go to where they always
play this. I'm sure I've heard it before and it's driving me crazy
that I don't know where. I want to know what it's called."
Comprehension dawned in the face of the only boy who had so far been
actively asking questions. He seemed delighted that it was his turn to
answer one.
"It's called Memory of Childhood. It's by Richard Clayderman. I can play it."
So now I knew what it was. Half the mystery was solved. Of course I
still didn't know where I had heard it. I would never dream of owning
a Richard Clayderman album.
We went back to the Q and A session I was there for.

It had started on Monday when we received a phone call from our FAO
saying that she wanted to talk to us about "something important." It
left us a little nervous as it could be anything, good or bad. When
she showed up at our apartment it was clearly nothing bad as she was
smiling – she smiles a lot but does tend to frown when there is bad
news or when she is concentrating on trying to understand something we
have said.
She sat down and explained. Her English, though better than she thinks
it is, is hesitant, so it took a while but the gist of the matter was
that she knew we had Thursday and Friday free from teaching, for
school exams, and she hoped we wouldn't mind teaching a couple of
demonstration lessons at other schools to convince them of the
benefits of taking foreign teachers next year. We readily agreed. Any
new day out – even one that is technically working – is something to
be cherished in Baiyin. It was agreed that I would teach a primary
school lesson in the morning and a high level senior class in the
afternoon. Mike had only one – an intermediate senior class in the
afternoon, but would come and observe me in the morning.
So, at 9:45, Jane turned up at our door and we set off for Baiyin
Primary School Number Eleven, which is, if you take a short cut
through the hospital grounds, a short walk from our apartment. It is a
large, modern school with an impressive array of security at the gate.
Once we had negotiated our way into the grounds we were met by the
Vice-Principal who ushered us off to the fourth floor office of the
Principal himself. Various other staff members joined us and while
Mike and I sipped the obligatory hot tea and looked around helplessly
a conversation went on around us in Chinese. I heard the word for
"teacher" a few times and the words for "English" and "American" but
apart from those and our names understood nothing.
Eventually they explained a little in English. I was going to teach a
hand picked class of about sixty of the best eleven- and
twelve-year-olds in the school. The room had computer facilities and a
smartboard if I wanted to use them or they could provide me with a
chalk board and coloured chalk. Having prepared a non-IT based lesson
I accepted the latter. Evidently they approved.
Five minutes later I was in the classroom and ready to teach. The
children were lined up at their desks and the entire teaching staff of
the English department plus Jane, Mike and the VP were lined up at the
And there was a photographer.
I wrote my name on the board and started.

The lesson had gone well. Very well. I'd concentrated on questions and
question forms. Played some games tossing a couple of coloured balls
about. Made them ask me and each other all sorts of questions. The
kids loved it. When it was over they mobbed be, hugging my waist,
grabbing my arms, begging me to autograph their books, chanting my
name. It was embarrassing and it took at least ten minutes to break
away from them. The lesson was a standard one. It's never – even in
China – got such an enthusiastic reaction.
Back in the staff room it seemed I was just as big a hit with the
staff. They questioned me about how I had come up with the ball toss
game. I assured them it's a standard language teaching activity. They
complimented me on how well it had all gone. They assured us that they
would certainly want a foreign teacher of their own.
And then they invited us for lunch.
As we left the building there was an honour guard of students with red
sashes over their blue and white uniforms, lining the drive to the
road. As our taxis sped off the students were already removing the
sashes and re-entering the grounds.
At the restaurant, which was clearly a rather up-market one, we were,
as is the norm for parties in good Chinese restaurants, shown into a
private dining room where we were given the guest of honour seats
while the school senior staff arranged themselves around us. It was
normal by Chinese standards which means that by ours it was an
elaborate banquet with dish after dish piled high on the table, all of
the delicious and all of them replaced by the attentive waiters with
further dishes as soon as they were empty. They were all eager to find
out more about us and the conversation took on the aspect of a Q&A
session with a celebrity as they quizzed us hospitably about our
lives, countries and educational techniques. Conscious that we had
more lessons to teach in the afternoon, neither of us chose to drink
beer, restricting ourselves to more tea.
When it finally all broke up and we took cabs back there was barely an
hour left before round two of the day.

Baiyin Experimental Middle School is a long way out in the west of the
city where everything is expanding as the city grows and where every
building is brand new, the roads are wide and un-potholed, and every
civic monument is shiny and gleaming. The school is no exception. It's
only been open for three months and is a huge ultra-modern complex in
extensive grounds. Once again the Vice Principal, aided by the head of
the English Department, showed us proudly around. There was one
enormous building filled with nothing but classrooms. A second housed
all of the school's laboratories and specialist departments and a
third had two floors of school library and two floors of school
offices. They were a very progressive school, we were told. They never
had more than fifty students in a class and much of their student body
came from the rural areas around the city as well as from the city

Instead of the offices we were shown straight to our classrooms, Mike
to his and me to mine. My room was big and, once again fully equipped
with computer technology controlled from a computer desk at the front.
Once again I didn't need it.
These students were older and more intense though once again the
entire back wall was lined with teachers eagerly waiting to see what I
would do.
With senior classes I usually adopt a different approach and the
lesson I'd chosen was one that I had been teaching all week to my own
Seniors. Like all my senior lessons it starts with an easy task to
establish vocabulary and then moves on to group discussions where they
try to collaboratively complete some kind of task, speaking only in
English – in this case a logic puzzle.
Once again after the lesson I was showered with praise. The students
were less effusive than their eleven year old counterparts but they
still all wanted to speak with me or shake my hand or get my email
address. When I finally escaped, Jane was waiting for me outside the

Over in the offices the entire English department were waiting for our
conversation. Mike was already there and it proceeded much as the
morning session had though this time they were also anxious to get out
opinions of their text books and exam papers. The books were much as
I've seen before, which is to say that they are filled with peculiar
topics, mistaken advice and grammatical forms that haven't been
current in general English usage for forty years or more. The exam
papers, though, were better. In fact they were much better and I could
detect only a couple of vaguely debatable answers on them and mostly
they were well-structured and appropriate.
They also wanted to take us to dinner.
But before that they asked if we would mind returning to the teaching
block for informal chats with groups of students from various classes.
In the classes the groups ranged from about a dozen to a full class,
seated and attentive. We had general sessions where they asked me
questions ranging from the trivial (Where are you from?) to the
ridiculously complex (Do you think that China will ever replace
America as the world's leading power?) to the bizarre (Can you sing a
song for us?)

Mike meanwhile had started his student interaction outside with a
basketball game in which he led a scratch team against the school
champions and got soundly, if not unexpectedly, beaten, before
completing some classroom question sessions of his own.

And then it was time for dinner. This time we were chauffeured over to
the restaurant by the VP who had what is probably the nicest car I
have seen in China. Even in the US or the UK it would be considered
the luxury end of the market.
The restaurant was once again an upmarket place. This time it was the
other standard of high end Chinese cuisine – a hot pot restaurant. In
our room each of the place settings at the huge round table had an
individual burner onto which our chosen basic hot pot was placed to
bubble and boil away. You can have spicy ones or plain ones in a
variety of flavours. Mine was a hot spicy chilli soup. The table is
then covered with mountains of thinly shaved meat and plates of
vegetables which you drop into the soup to cook and then fish out, dip
into your chosen selection of flavourings and eat. It sounds delicious
and it is delicious – the only problem is that fishing a slice of
cooked sweet potato from a bubbling cauldron of lava with chopsticks
is not that easy a process for those of us whose skill comes and goes.
The result was that quite a lot of my food was dropped onto my plate
from a height that was greater than prudent and splashed up unto my
shirt. Every time I did it the school senior staff laughed amiably and
offered to help me, apparently impressed by my dogged determination
not to let it beat me. This time I was, of course, additionally
handicapped by the fact that I could now drink beer with my meal –
just as well given how hot and spicy it was – and by the fact that my
glass was never allowed to become more than half empty before someone
refilled it.
Conversation was much as it had been at lunchtime though several of
the teachers at this school were not just good at English but
genuinely fluent, so it was a great evening. They too, it seemed, are
determined to get their own foreign teachers as soon as they can.
At about eight thirty we finished off the meal. Dropping the
flame-snuffers onto the burners and downing a final drink. We were
driven back to our apartment in that same luxury car and with a final
goodbye ended what had been a fascinating day – even if I had eaten
more than I would usually eat in a week.

Friday, 4 November 2011

China: A Mystery Solved

I know that I am much older than my fellow teacher at Baiyin Middle
School number 10 but I have been puzzled by the number of times I have
been introduced to people who have assumed me to be his father.

This week the mystery was solved when yet another person did it. In
the course of the dinner conversation she referred to me as his father
and we examined the reason closely. It seems that when some introduces
us they say "This is Michael and this is Bob" but they are not hearing
Bob as my name - instead they are hearing "baba" which is Chinese for

Mystery solved.

In my next post I shall tell you all about my day teaching
demonstration lessons at two other schools.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

China: General Update

I'm a little puzzled.
I'd have thought by now that my posts would indicate that I'm very
happy - very happy indeed - with my current situation but it seems
from various pieces of private correspondence that some of my friends
seem to have taken only the message from my very early Chinese posts
and not noticed the change.
Let's set the record straight. I am very happy with how things have
turned out. I'm having a whale of a time. The only, and I do mean THE
ONLY, downside at all is that there isn't a whole lot to do for
entertainment in Baiyin.
Otherwise it's all good.
Let's tally it up.
On the plus side I have

i) the easiest and most fun job I've had in my life,
ii) students at school who think I can walk on water,
iii) staff at the school who are incredibly friendly, invite me out,
buy me dinner, help me in every conceivable way,
iv) a very nice free apartment with free utilities,
v) a city where I can buy very nearly anything I want for about a
fifth of the UK price,
vi) a salary that is more than I can possibly spend,
vii) plenty of pool halls, great cheap restaurants* and bars nearby
(even one that I discovered this week selling some very nice imported
German beer),
viii) a plentiful supply of cheap, if not precisely legitimate, DVDs,
ix) a stress and worry free lifestyle where every possible problem is
someone else's problem
x) access to my friends, games, books, magazines and so on via the internet

and on the minus side

i) it's sometimes a bit boring

I'd say that's pretty heavily weighted in favour of my having a good
time, wouldn't you.

Take yesterday for example. Some of the senior students (aged 17 and
18) had heard that Mike and I like to play pool so they asked us to
meet them after school and go to play pool so that they could, as we
played, get some extra English practice. My classes finish at five but
theirs go on till seven so, at seven, we met them at the school gate.
About a dozen of them had turned up and they escorted us to a
different pool hall where we took it in turns to play every student
there. They were eager to talk about anything under the sun and I got
the distinct impression that they were letting us win. We were there
for about an hour and a half and then they took us to a nice noodle
restaurant along the street where we all sat around a big table eating
the beef noodle soup that is the local specialty.
Conversation was difficult but they were all eager to try. One of the
girls, who was bizarrely wearing spectacles with no lenses in them,
was particularly good at English but shy of speaking as most of the
other students were boys. She did however explain about the spectacles
with the peculiar remark that "the lenses are in my eyes". It seems
not uncommon here that students wearing contact lenses will then add
lensless spectacles. I have no idea why.

When we left the restaurant, with the students insisting that we let
them pay for the food, and they went their ways while we went ours
they all ran up to us and shook hands or hugged us before running off
down the street to go home
And it's like that all the time. Everyone wants to be our friend.

I would post more but I have to go now because I've been invited to
dinner by a colleague of Erika, who I have never met and who works at
an entirely different school. It's a hard life.

More later.

(*Across the street from me is a barbecue restaurant where I can eat
ten skewers of spicy grilled mutton, a plate of grilled chicken wings,
ten skewers of assorted grilled vegetables and drink five large
bottles of beer and spend about three pounds in total. We go there a

Saturday, 22 October 2011

China: Adventures in Hairdressing

When I look around my class about a third of them - boys and girls -
have the pudding basin haircut that parents here seem to often inflict
on their kids. The others sport styles ranging from relatively normal
to rather outlandish. Whatever their chosen style there is no shortage
of places where they can get it done. Within a couple of minutes walk
of my front door there are at least a dozen barbers. They range from
small rooms opening directly onto the street, with one chair and one
mirror to the rather more elaborate, and strangely named "HoBoy Hair"
salon. If none of those appeal there are also people who, armed with
comm, scissors and a folding chair, will cut your hair at the side of
the road with people passing by and staring at you.

All of which may go some way to explaining why the department store
here has no fewer than six wig shops, presumably to enable you to hide
the more extreme hairstyling disasters.

So when I looked in the mirror and realised I needed a haircut I felt
distinctly nervous at the prospect. All I needed was to have it left
substantially as it is but cut a little shorter and a little tidier.
The problem was how to communicate that to a barber without risking
any of the more ridiculous possibilities. Fortunately one of the other
teachers overheard me mention it and offered to take me to his barber
and stay and translate for me. Seeing the state of his hair I was
still a little dubious about the idea but on the whole it seemed
better than trying to go unassisted.
So this morning he came and showed me how to get to his barber. It was
quite a long walk and he kept up a running commentary on the town,
pointing out all sorts of things that I'd missed - the best noodle
shops and dumpling restaurants, various internet cafes (that by
Chinese law cannot be sited within 500 metres of a school) and of
course the dozens of barber shops that I wasn't going to.
Eventually we turned into a street and he stopped and said, "Oh!"
The barber shop (which I wouldn't have been able to identify as such)
was closed and shuttered.
"Don't worry." he said, "I will call the owner."
And he did. He actually telephoned the barber and asked her to come
out and cut my hair. After a brief exchange she apparently agreed.
"She will be twenty minutes." he told me.
Twenty minutes later, after a walk in the small nearby park, he called
her again.
"She is just cooking her husband's lunch." he told me.
Finally, after almost an hour she arrived and opened up.
Inside she set about cutting my hair. I was still doubtful because
without my glasses I am far too short sighted to be able to watch the
progress in the mirror. It was really quite surreal. She chatted away
in Chinese with the equivalent of "Been on your holidays yet this
year, sir?" My colleague translated into English. I replied just as if
I were in a barber shop in England. He translated back and she asked
another question. If she asked, "Something for the weekend, sir." he
neglected to translate it.
When she had finished and I had retrieved my glasses I was relieved to
find it looking as I'd intended but she hadn't finished. She then
insisted on washing it and when I said that, as it was a bright sunny
day, I didn't need to have it dried, they were both horrified. I would
certainly become ill if I went out with wet hair, I was informed, and
I might die. I let her dry it.

Then I asked the price. It was five yuan - fifty pence. As we walked
back down the road I was told that had I gone to one of the other
barbers it night well have been double that. Given that the cheapest
barber I know in the UK charges six pounds and most are much more
expensive than that, I couldn't help thinking I'd had a bargain.

I wonder what the roadside barbers charge.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

China: An unplanned day

Sometimes days don't take the route you'd planned for them.
Take yesterday for example.
My plan had been to spend a couple of hours on the computer, go out
and try to buy a printer, come back and connect it up, spend an hour
or so on lesson preparation for the next couple of weeks, watch some
TV, log in to the chat room and talk to some friends, and finally go
to bed.
Well the origin and the final destination were the same but in between
things took a number of different turns.

The attempts to buy a printer proved fruitless. I found one printer in
one shop but it was a huge model at an insane price. As I was leaving
the shop I received a text message that Erika had sent to me and Mike
asking if we were at home. I texted back saying no and continued on
down to the DVD shop to see what he'd had in new this week.
About half an hour later, as I was putting my key in the outside lock
of our apartment block I got a call from Mike asking how long I'd be.
By the time I'd answered him the answer was "I'm here already."
In the apartment Erika was sitting with her friend. Now I don't want
anything here to sound judgmental, but it probably will so I'll
preface it by saying it isn't meant to. It's factual and the fact is
that her friend was one of her students, aged about seventeen. And
there you see that we have already crossed the line of what in the UK
would be considered acceptable professional behaviour. Teachers simply
don't make friends with their students. It's so deeply ingrained that
it feels wrong.
We were, apparently, all invited to dinner at her parents apartment,
which is a little better as now appropriate adults are involved.
Before that though there were a couple of hours to kill so we went out
and went to the pool hall and when we left the pool hall we bumped
into another group of Erika's students, two boys and a girl - all
sixteen or seventeen years old - and went to a bar where we drank beer
and played counting games with cards.
All of this was over my protests at the advisability of it. It's
perfectly legal, China has a legal age for the purchase of alcohol but
none for drinking it or going into bars. Maybe it's because there is a
relatively small age gap between Mike and Erika, and the students -
about eight years - compared to the gap between me and the students -
more like thirty six years - but I was decidedly uncomfortable with
the whole situation.
Things improved when the other students went home and we went back the
first students house. Her family were delighted to have us, giving us
an excellent meal and insisting that we drink quite a lot of beer with
The apartment was about the same size as ours but very differently
laid out and as we sat in their small living room more and more family
members arrived - brothers, uncles, aunts, friends of the family -
until it was really very crowded. Her mother piled the table high with
food and, though it contained some things that were very odd to us - a
large bowl of chicken's feet for example - it was all delicious. Only
the student spoke English, and fortunately rather good English -so
everything was conducted in translation. We were made to feel like a
combination of long lost relatives and revered guests. Everybody had
their photograph taken with us, individually and collectively.
After several hours one of the uncles suggested KTV.
I may have mentioned KTV before but for those who missed it, I need to
describe it now. It is a Chinese institution, here in Baiyin I know of
six KTVs and I haven't been looking for them. What it is, is a kind of
private Karaoke. Each room in a building will be separately equipped
for Karaoke and you rent a room by the hour. You and your friends pile
in, eat, drink and sing. The rooms vary. Last nights was a small room
with comfortable chairs and things rapidly got underway, were rapidly
after the Karaoke controls had been explained to us at least three
times by the patient employee.
Drink continued to flow, though I had by now reduced my own rate of
consumption to merely politely joining in whenever toasted by one of
the family.
Others were less wise and were considerably the worse for wear when we
finally left at about 10:45 but we did make it back in time for me to
try to connect in the chatroom but there was nobody there so I gave up
and went to bed.

Sometimes days don't follow the route you had planned for them but,
vague concerns aside, it had nevertheless been a pretty good day.

Friday, 14 October 2011

To Put Away Childish Things #30

I received an email recently from a friend who asked in passing if I
remember Coterill's. Now if you were brought up in the same,
relatively small town, that I was brought up in and if you are of a
similar age to me, then you certainly do remember this small toy shop
that was on the left as you head up the high street.
Nostalgia always colours our memories and when it's nostalgia for such
a long time ago the memories are likely to be almost completely wrong
but this is how I recall the shop. To begin with it was small and
anything that you remember from your childhood as being small probably
was, because most things look bigger when you are six. It was also
filled with toys which included all the ones that I have mentioned
before in this series. Football games, Mechano, Lego, Airfix kits –
everything. I recall particularly that when I started making Airfix
models I would build them, then study the colour chart and hurry off
to Coterill's to check if he had the required enamels in those tiny
metal pots (it was never as much fun when they started to replace them
with larger plastic pots). Then I would go home and paint the airplane
or tank or car – or, more likely, as I mentioned in an earlier piece
– historical figure. There was a vast range of colours to choose from
and at one time or another I probably went through most of them.

None of which is what really gave me a sense of dewy-eyed
reminiscence. No, what I really remember is balsa wood. In addition to
making Airfix models, where all the hard work is done before you get
your hands on them and all you do is glue and paint, I also went
through a phase of making balsa wood models. Mostly they were
buildings for my model railway but there were other things – vehicles,
spaceships : that kind of thing. Of course the thing about making that
kind of model is that you do all the work yourself with craft knives
(balsa is very soft and easy to cut), miniature saws and so on and to
do that you need the raw material, the wood. Coterill's sold packs of
balsa. They were assorted packs in random sizes. There were flat
sheets, lumpy blocks, pieces a foot long and a quarter inch square in
cross section, dowelling rods: a full range of mixed off-cuts and you
never knew what you would get. Of course you could pay the extra and
get exactly what you were looking for but I always went for the packs.
Then I cut them up and made them into models which were probably
terrible. The same paint used for the Airfix was used for these more
hand-crafted models.

It was a brief phase, I'm not an especially practical adult and I
wasn't a very practical child, and, until I was reminded of it by the
mention of Coterill's, I had forgotten it completely. Even now that
it's all come flooding back I can't accurately recall what the models
were of, or what they were like but I remember going into the shop and
buying that balsa. I remember the feel of it and the smell of it. I
remember cutting into it with a very sharp craft knife. I remember
prising the lids from those tiny paint tins – and how much harder it
was once they had been opened and resealed, stuck together with dried
enamel. I remember the white wood glue that dried into lumpy runs
around the joins and had to be scraped away with a blade. I remember
the smell of the paint and how I would keep on touching it to find out
if it was dry yet, leaving sticky fingerprints that needed to be
painted over.

If I don't remember the actual models then it really doesn't matter.
Nostalgia isn't about truth or even about normal memory. It's about
sense memory and I have remembered all of the sensations of doing it.
That's more than enough.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

China: School Life redux

And this you probably won't believe.

The school is, as I've said before, brand new. Some of the classrooms
are still being equipped. Today one was being equipped as a dance
Remember there are 3000 students in the school which means 3000
students in the halls at break. The large mirrors for the dance studio
walls were being carried through the very, very crowded halls by two
students aged about thirteen. The crowd of students was jostling and
pushing and several times they were almost knocked over as they
carried a piece of glass that was about four square metres which,
because they were kids, they could only hold horizontally.

In the UK there would be, and probably rightly in this case, a public
outcry. There would be investigations into who had authorised this.
Senior management heads would roll.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I'm truly amazed that no one
was injured.

As I say. Things can be very different in Chinese schools.

Monday, 10 October 2011

China: School Life

This weekend I worked on Sunday and it was because of an oddity of
Chinese scheduling. Last week was a holiday. Only four weeks into the
term and it was a holiday. Specifically October 1st was the National
Day Holiday but people had the whole week off.
At least some people did. Some people had part of the week off, two or
three days.
This is where it gets a bit complicated for schools.
The Middle schools basically have four grades - Junior 1 and 2 and
Senior 1 and 2. The junior classes had off the whole week but the
senior classes had off only Monday and Tuesday.
Even though we teach a mixture of junior and senior we were told to
take the whole week. When I asked what would happen in the lessons I
usually teach I was told that they would be taken by Chinese teachers.
Fair enough. I'm not going to complain about being given time off.

I was, however, also told that my holiday was from 1st to 7th of
October and that I would have to go in on Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th.
As I have no classes on those days it seemed odd. I questioned it and
found out that when the schools have holidays for one or two days the
days get shuffled forward to compensate so that last week, for seniors
only, Wednesday became a logical Monday with a Monday schedule,
Thursday became Tuesday, Friday became Wednesday and, of course,
Saturday and Sunday became Thursday and Friday. To confuse matters
even more although the juniors didn't have to come in on any of the
weekdays, the juniors who would have had classes on Thursday and
Friday did have to come in on the weekend. Every single one of them
showed up as normal.
Apparently this kind of thing is perfectly commonplace here.

There is another difference worthy of note. It's not in the scheduling
but in the attitude that is drilled into students right from the start
of their school lives. It's best illustrated by something that happens
at the end of every lesson. Before I am even out of the room one
student - presumably previously chosen by his class teacher - will be
at the board cleaning it with wet rags and a bucket of water. Another
will have a broom sweeping the floor clean. A third will be tidying
the teacher's desk.
Out in the corridors groups of students will be similarly employed,
sweeping and cleaning. I saw today a very rare instance of a piece of
chewing gum on the floor. A student was cleaning it up with a razor
blade. In every break the chrome on the hand rails will be polished
back to a shine, the halls returned to a perfect new condition. And
all of it is done by the students. I don't know if the school ever
uses professional cleaners but if they do there can't be much work for
Students are even used to clean out the toilets!

I can't imagine any school in the UK or the US even being allowed to
use students this way and, even if they were, it would most likely be
as a punishment and done grudgingly, if at all. Here the students seem
to compete for the privilege of doing it all.

A third oddity is one that may well account for this attitude though
it's one I can't bring myself to approve of. Coming from the west it
is very disturbing to now be working in a culture where physical
punishment is not just allowed but commonplace.A Chinese teacher
recently said to me, "I only beat them when they need it or when I get
angry." and all three of us teaching here in Baiyin have been told
that we should beat them if we need to. Naturally none us is ever
likely to do that. I'm only familiar with British law on the subject
not US law but in the UK we are only allowed to even touch a child to
prevent immediate physical danger: if he's about to fall out of a
third floor window, for example. We are not even allowed to be alone
in a room with a student. And now people are telling me that it's OK
to "beat them".

Sometimes school life here can be very different!