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.

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.