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.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Things I Miss About England #9 : Galleries (again)

Yes I know I did "galleries" before but I wanted to post a link and this seemed a good series to post it in.
Some years ago, when it was located on the South Bank, I paid my first visit to the Saatchi Gallery, which has since it's move to Chelsea become one of my firm favourites.
There were exhibitions there by many of the luminaries of modern art - Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Rachel Whiteread and so on but one of the outstanding shows, for me at least, was Ron Mueck's gallery. Mueck, for those who haven't encountered him, does hyper-realistic sculptures of people. They are so realistic that from any distance, even a few inches, they look like real, living people... or they would if not for one thing. They are always done to a different scale. So you get half size people lying naked on the floor, or faces that occupy entire walls but all of them riveting in the detail and the amazing quality of execution.
Some modern art I see and forget, some I see and remember.
Ron Mueck's work is unforgettable.

And now, loathe as I am to post a link to the Daily Mail, here is the link to an unexpectedly good article with a lot of pictures.


Ron Mueck

Monday, 30 December 2013

A Review of the Year

Well, it's certainly been a year of ups and downs. Pity it's ended on quite a lot of downs but that's how life goes sometimes.
So let's begin at the beginning back in January when I had a holiday in Beijing which feels like a lifetime ago. It was a great holiday and even though I've visited the place half a dozen times now it never fails to be interesting. This time the highlights were seeing a deserted section of the Great Wall covered in snow, finding a few excellent beers and some amazing pizza, wandering round the Summer Palace – again covered in snow, finding an English Language bookshop and filling my suitcase with cheese to take back to Baiyin.

After that things chugged on like the Grand Old Duke Of York's Men – neither up nor down –   until May when I was introduced to Teresa and life started looking up. Soon my western friends were saying what a great couple we make and my Chinese friends, as Chinese friends are prone to do, were asking when (not even "if") we would get married. This is the first question on most Chinese people's mind apparently. Say “hi” to a woman once and everyone wants to set a wedding date.
Well sorry to disappoint but we are happy keeping things on the boyfriend-girlfriend track right now.
Summer saw me teaching summer school and visiting Yangshuo, where the school was located, was a high though discovering that a mix up meant I would only be paid half what I thought and would end up losing money dampened the end a bit. Of course Teresa came down to stay for a week which was another high but our only serious argument to date marred the end of that a little.
We sorted it out though and life in Baiyin resumed it's normal course with the addition of some new teachers to the City – Kelly and Anthony. That brought it up to five with me, Carol and Megan – Ben and Jess having already left.
A dark undercurrent started to flow in around mid October with rumours that next year the number of teachers would be cutback to two. As always in China getting hard information was – and still is – difficult. No one here will ever come right out and tell you bad news. They hint, they suggest, they offer tantalising clues. What they never do is tell you anything straight. It's cultural and to us seems a very odd – and extremely frustrating – way of going about things. They are completely direct with personal remarks – like my student telling me I'm too fat – but with something important it can be like pulling teeth to get the necessary answers.
The end of October had an up that turned into a down with Carol's Hallowe'en party. This was an event that she organised at a cafe where the kids paid a small fee and had an evening of English games, fun and dressing up. It was fun but afterwards, when planning a similar Christmas party it was made clear to us in no uncertain terms that this is something we cannot do. We can organise no events – and especially no paid events – without the express permission of the school. Permission that we would be unable to get, so no point in asking.

The dark rumblings continued. Our administrator had a “secret” meeting with me and Carol indicating that we would be staying next term but all the other teachers were likely to be gone. This was secret until ten minutes later when I called the other teachers and told them everything that had been said. We do things differently in the west and I don't like keeping secrets that affect people's lives. The trouble with this new plan was that it involved a fifty percent increase in workload, one of us living on campus in the west of the city and no pay rise.
No one was happy.
Two teachers were officially told they would be leaving – and given that one of them, like me, now had a Chinese partner, this was not welcome news.
A little rise in fortunes came when I was asked to go back to Yangshuo during Spring Break to do some teacher training – an area I have long been interested in.
Then I slipped and broke my knee.
Then my girlfriend was put into a new post at work which means we hardly ever see each other.
Then my gout returned.
As lovely a string of “downs” as you could hope to end the year on.
The resulting plaster cast will however be off in time for me to still to the teacher training.
Now the third teacher's departure has been confirmed but with the slight good news that both Carol and I will be staying and the workload won't increase because another school has decided to do without. That's lucky because if it had I would be put in the impossible position of choosing between an intolerable job in the city with Teresa or a tolerable one in a city without her.

And that is how everything stands as the new year races towards us.
As I said, a year of ups and downs. 
But the ups were good enough to make the downs seem unimportant, and you can't really ask for more.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

And a Merry Christmas To Me Part 6: And...

And... the water supply to my apartment is off.

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 5:The return of Tòngfēng*

Never ever allow yourself to believe that things can't get worse.
So, where were we - leg plastered, finger splinted, ears cleaned, moderately annoyed at having to unexpectedly teach primary school. Yes that's about it. 
My weekend was, of course, not especially pleasant but nor was it entirely intolerable. I was in my apartment with my computer and TV, people visited me. I visited the hospital. 
On Monday I had to go to school for four lessons. It proved possible with the aid of taxis and a lunchtime spent in the coffee shop instead of going home.
What hadn't proven possible was putting a sock onto my right foot so I went without one.
During the day my foot became more and more painful which I attributed merely to the cold.
On Tuesday I enlisted help to put on my sock and taught again.
Same on Wednesday but the pain was becoming worse.
On Wednesday evening, when my friends were all having a jolly Christmas dinner at one of the teacher's apartment I sat and ate an OK dinner of mince, veg and potatoes and watched TV - but my foot was getting worse. 
I was cheered when my girlfriend arrived unexpectedly and even more cheered - though perhaps I shouldn't admit it - by the prescription of ibuprofen in her bag.
I took some but it didn't help. 
We peeled off my sock and looked at my foot. It was a) swollen, b) red and c) shiny.
I realised almost immediately that my gout was back, perhaps exacerbated by the poor circulation in a plastered leg and the cold on my sockless Monday.
Over the next hour the pain increased to the point where I knew I needed to go to the hospital for better pain medication.

And so I spent last night in hospital again.

Now I am back in my apartment - under orders to walk no more than the few steps from bed to armchair and wondering how things will get worse.

Because I know that they can.

*Tongfeng is Chinese for gout but it sounds so much better in the title.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

And A Merry Christmas To Me: Part 4: Nothing Like Sympathy

Although I had left hospital and returned to my apartment I still had a few days when I needed to visit as an outpatient, have the plaster checked and spend another hour receiving medicine from a drip that could be administered in five seconds by injection.
No matter. It's an hour sitting on a bed reading. 
So while that was going on my administrator - who I am becoming increasingly less impressed with - called and said a car would come for me. To take me home, I thought.
It turned out that I was wrong. She had decided to send someone who had fractured his kneecap three days earlier to do an (unpaid) days work in a primary school where the kids were having a Christmas party. It involved walking and standing and entertaining five-to-nine-year-olds for about five hours. The only respite was a sit down lunch which, though rather nice, was up several flights of stairs including some ice-covered exterior ones.
When it became clear that I couldn't do any more they took me home and on the way asked what time I could come next day.
I was quite firm in my statement that I couldn't.
L later discovered that she had asked one of the teachers who said she couldn't do it because she had flu, asked another who couldn't do it because she was out of the city, asked another  who couldn't do it because she didn't feel well and then , as a last resort come to me but in my case she didn't even ask. She just arranged it and sent me to struggle through.
The Chinese, or some of them anyway, have odd notions about sympathy and convalescence. 
It should also be noted that I was talking last night to the teachers from my school. It seems that what started out as a polite "when will he be able to return to work" inquiry by the school was filtered through her brain to arrive at me as "you must return to school on Friday" - less than two full days after the accident.
In the past she's been pretty good but this year things are far less rosy.

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 3: Ear Wax

So, there I was, in plaster, in bed, in hospital, in Baiyin, in China and it occurred to me that now might be a good time to see to another very minor but rather irritating problem that had been bothering me for a while. Ear wax.
Every few years ago the wax in my ears begins to build up and I go to see the nurse at my local GP to get something done about it. She gives me ear drops that I use for about a week to soften it and then one more visit and a syringe full of warm water squirted into the ear washes it all out. Hey presto, done for another few years.
I mentioned it to Doctor Hu who arranged a visit later thta morning to the relevant department. When I arrived I was a litt;e disconcerted to see a large tray filled with long thin knives, spoons and needles.
They proceded to use these implements of torture - and I am choosing my words with precision - to poke, prod and scrape all the way down to my ear drum. It took about twenty minutes and I will admit that it was so painful I was screaming out like a baby. For the whole time I was terrified that one small slip could render me permanently deaf.
Eventually the looked again and declared my ears to be a wax free zone. There was however, they said, always the risk of infection from this non-too-gentle process so I would have to use ear drops for a few days to prevent it. The handed me a bottle. It was very clearly labelled - in English - "EYE DROPS". I pointed this out and they told me that it's the same thing. It's rather concerning that they think eyes and ears are the same thing, though they probably meant that the drops are the same, or at least will both do the job of preventing infection.
All the same, next time I feel myself going deaf I will wait till I can go see a nurse in the UK.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

And A Merry Christmas To Me Part 2: Random Observations from a Hospital Bed

So, I spent a couple of days in hospital until they were happy that - cast and all - I could function in my apartment. I noticed a few things while I was there.

1. The traditional hospital visiting gift in these parts isn't flowers or grapes... it's milk. Every visitor seemed to bring me another box of it. If I'd stayed in a few more days  could probably have opened a dairy.

2. One of the teachers who visited me later gave my phone number to his whole class so that I kept receiving text messages and phone calls from students. One of the, in the middle of the conversation, said, "Forgive me to say this - I think you fall because you are too fat."

3. My doctor's name was Doctor Hu.

4. Although I've only been getting western style treatment - no acupuncture or weird TCM concoctions - there are still differences. For example injections are almost never administered here with all drugs necessary being given by IV drip. This may have sound medical reasons but it leads to a very boring hour of lying flat doing nothing.

5. And speaking of which... when, On Sunday, I had the last of them they communicated this fact to me with a sentence translated by a phone app into English. It read, rather ominously I thought, "your liquid has no tomorrow.".

5. Having never fractured my patella in England I don't know the normal length of time someone would take off for such an injury but given that people sneeze twice and take a week I'll bet it's more than I got here. I did it at 2:17 on Wednesday and was required back in class at 2:30 on Friday.

6. Although smoking is supposed to be banned in the hospital whenever doctors or nurses came into the room the smell of smoke was detectable as soon as they opened the door. These visits were frequent as just about every member of the hospital staff wanted to come and see the foreigner in their midst.

7. You should not, no matter how much it is needed, ever get the wax cleaned out of your ears in a Chinese hospital... and you will learn why in the next post.

8. The nine-year-old girl who is my private student was, so her father says, so worried about me she made him bring her to visit. She brought flowers... and milk.

And a Merry Christmas To Me: Part 1 - Ice can be slippery

The title of this piece, as will rapidly become apparent, is meant in the spirit of irony rather than sincerity.
It all started last Wednesday at 2:17 p.m.
The walk from my apartment to my school is a short one, a mere five minutes amble so, as is my custom, I left my apartment at 2:15 to be early for my 2:30 class. My step was jaunty, my coat was warm and I had a tape recorder for the lesson firmly grasped in my hand.
I went down the five flights of stairs, round the block, through the gates and exited onto the street. There my foot collided with the curb and I stumbled forward. I might have recovered had I not stepped onto a patch of ice. I slipped and was pitched through the air by my momentum. The cassette recorder went flying from my hand. I put out my arms to break my fall. It was no good. My left hand and my right knee hit the floor simultaneously.
Passers by hurried to help. My leg was scraped and two fingers were bent at angles that fingers are not designed to bend at. Two kids from my school - though not my class - helped me to the school premises and then went off to fetch a teacher.
For the moment any pain was being masked by the shock.
Teachers came.
Kids departed, taking my cassette to the office as they went.
A taxi was called.
Five minutes later I was at the hospital.
They cleaned up my knee and examined me.
The escorted me to X-Ray, explaining that they thought my fingers were dislocated rather than broken and that my knee was only grazed.
It turned out that they were half right - the wrong half.
My fingers were indeed dislocated but my knee was another matter. There was a small fracture in the patella.
The fingers were rapidly, if painfully dealt with and a finger guard placed over them to be removed in three weeks when the muscles had healed.
As for the knee they told me not to worry. It was small and would heal easily - given about  six weeks in a plaster cast.
So there went my plans for Christmas and the New Year and there went my plans for a holiday in Shanghai.

Thailand and Laos 1998 - An explanation

It hadn't occurred to me that people might read these posts without noticing the "1998" in the title until a friend asked me about my recent injuries. I was puzzled. I'd had no recent injuries so I didn't know what she was talking about.
When I asked it became clear that she was talking about the "recent" injuries in 1998.

So let me explain.

I tried a month or so ago to access my old web page only to discover that it's no longer there. The excellent waybackmachine  will however let me recover the content which I am posting here a bit at a time so that there is a current record of the stuff that has disappeared.

Any heading with a place and a date is likely to be just such a reposting.

Sorry for any confusion. I'll include an explanation at the top of any similar posts.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The importance of taking your own advice

I should learn to follow my own advice.

When I am training teachers or observing teachers I always stress the importance of having a back-up plan for your lesson. Doing a whizz-bang, super-duper computer based lesson? Have a back up in case the computer fails. Using audio-visual materials? Think about what you'll do if there is no power. Teaching in an unfamilar classroom and want to stick things to the board with magnets? What will you do if it's not magnetic? Even think about what to do if you have no board at all. Always have a back-up plan.
Pride goes before a fall.

At the weekend I spent a lot of time preparing a music lesson - finding and recording the songs I wanted to use. Planning in detail how I would use them and what I would do.

Trouble was I was feeling a bit under the weather and didn't feel well-enough to do the extra effort to make a back-up. Things would be OK, wouldn't they. I've had no difficulties at that school before.

Except that I got in, plugged in my tape player and discovered that the power has been off for three days.
Without the recordings I had no lesson.

Luckily there were a couple of pages in their Chinese book that the teachers said they wouldn't be using so I taught those instead.

Note to self: always follow your own advice.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A "Things I Miss About England/Put Away Childish Things" crossover

While talking about Christmas television and which bits of it we do and don't miss with a colleague here in China I suddenly realised what I miss most about Christmas TV are the Christmas editions of the Radio and TV Times.
Moreover, what I miss isn't the way they are now because in my head - if not in reality - you have to buy both because, and younger readers may find this hard to believe, once upon a time there were only four channels (three if you go back before 1982) and the Radio Times gave listings for two of them and the TV times gave listings for the other two. All of the other TV guides that clutter up the newsagents shelves didn't exist at all.
So, to get a complete picture of what you might expect to see on TV, you had to buy two guides. They always came out a few weeks before Christmas and sometimes some of the programs were marked as "to be confirmed" but you could take them and put them side by side on the table and work out which programs you wanted to watch.
They were always double issues covering Christmas and the New Year so it could take some time but I remember that I always used to diligently go through them with a pen marking all the things I wanted to see and trying to choose where there was a conflict.
This was, as you may have guessed, not only before the "watch again" features on the internet but before TiVo, before DVDs and even before VCRs. Yes, children, there used to be a time when you couldn't record shows and watch them later, a time when, if there were two shows on different channels, you had to choose which one to watch.
You are right of course - there was never a time before repeats.

Still this isn't nostalgia for television, it's nostalgia for television guides and those magazines, by the time the Christmas period had ended, had been read through and checked so many times that they had fallen to bits. Christmas was the only time of year when every day's programs from the start of broadcasting to the close down was checked  (and yes, there was a time when TV wasn't on 24 hours a day). Who knew what old movies, or unusual series, or interesting cartoons might have been slipped into the schedules at peculiar hours of the day. The only way to be sure you didn't miss something interesting was to check the guides.

Later both magazines started listings for all channels and almost immediately on the heels of that change the shelves seemed to be full of TV guides. You could choose one from about a dozen and use that to plan your seasonal viewing but it wasn't the same.

It wasn't the same at all.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

I appreciate the advice...

I recently posted on Facebook a comment about a student in class here in China. It was nothing very unusual, just the issue all of the teachers here face every day – students doing the homework from other teachers in their class. What made this a little different, and a little amusing, was that the student, instead of trying to hide it, as they usually do, had actually had the cheek to ask me to help him.
A trivial anecdote to be sure but that's what Facebook is for.
It drew a response from an acquaintance who deserves a public acknowledgement of his contribution. He is an unfailing source of inspirational input who never lets his total lack of knowledge on a subject prevent him giving you his opinion the facts. With that in mind, of course I don't feel even slightly insulted by his opening remark that the student clearly finds the other teacher's work more engaging than mine. Why would I? After all, if he suggests that I am not a good teacher, who am I to argue?. He has never seen me teach but why should that matter?
Similarly there is, to my mind, absolutely no hint of passive aggression in his assertion that I must find it “quite difficult to make language teaching interesting”. My teaching qualifications and my years of experience weigh very poorly in the balance when compared to his deductive reasoning skills and his conclusion based on a single paragraph about slightly amusing incident.
Now I don't wish to seem ungrateful, after all I value his input every bit as much as everyone else he interacts with does, but I would like to expand on it a little.
It's clear that the Chinese school day which is, at my school anyway, eleven and a half hours long followed by a minimum of two hours home work each night (and six days a week) will have no influence at all on whether the kids try to do their homework in class time or not. The merest suggestion is ludicrous. If the class is interesting they will be too absorbed to do anything other than listen, won't they?
And if I gave homework (which I am not allowed to do) I am sure that the other teachers would be so interesting that there would be no temptation at all for the students to try to do it in their lessons. In fact it would probably be so dull that they wouldn't do it at all. And who could blame them?
Later he goes on to suggest that as my classes are intended to focus on speaking and listening I could make it a rule that only English is to be spoken in class. It is brilliant in its simplicity. I wonder why I never thought of it. Get them to speak in English. It's quite breathtaking. Of course there would be no difficulty at all in a class of eighty in making sure that everyone speaking at once is speaking English. I shall certainly have to try that.
I might also think of some more rules – don't carve your names in the desk, don't read comics in class, don't set fire to the bookcase, don't play cards. Why this stuff is revolutionary. I must remember to tell the Chinese teachers about it. I'm sure they have never even considered it. I know I haven't.
His support for my difficulty is well expressed when he goes on to say that he “can appreciate the challenge with a class of that size”. Of course he has never tried to teach a class of eighty eleven-year-olds but his theorising is, as always, welcome input.
So to summarise, I am inexpressibly grateful for these invaluable suggestions. As it will take me some time to implement all of this groundbreaking stuff though, I'd appreciate it if there were no more suggestions – at least for the time being.