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, 23 December 2014

Recycled From Facebook:And What Exactly Does That Mean?

A headline from the website of my old local paper in the UK says "A police operation to curb car crime in Wolverhampton has seen a six-fold reduction in thefts from vehicles" but what exactly is a "six-fold" drop. If there were sixty crimes before is it a drop by one-sixth (to 50) or a drop to one sixth (that is 10) or perhaps a drop that is actually six-fold and six times the original number of crimes are now NOT recorded (a staggering -300 crimes). Mathematics is clearly not the strong suit of editors.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Recycled From Facebook: The Return of the Mini-Rant

Part I
After weeks of being asked by my school to use the computers I wrote a computer lesson for this week. Halfway into the first lesson of the day (with four to go) there was a power failure at the school which means it will now be off for at least the rest of the day.
This is why I don't write computer lessons. And that's what I will tell them next time they try to insist. (I did have a plan B!)

I learned my lesson on this back in England when the college I taught at decided to replace all the whiteboards with smartboards and then had the lot break down leaving all the classrooms with literally nowhere to write anything. In classroom situations I firmly believe the lower tech the better.

Part II
More reasons NOT to put computers in classrooms.
My classrooms all have computers that project onto retractable screens which raise or lower in front of the whiteboards. I've mentioned before the problems with preparing detailed whiz-bang computer lessons only to arrive and find the computer isn't working or there has been a power failure. This week I had another problem. My lesson has no computer content but three times out of thirteen lessons (so far) I've arrived in class to find the retractable screens broken and stuck in the down position. This has meant teaching without a board to write on as the board has been wholly covered by the screen which I can't write on. From now I'll always have a "no materials/no board" back up plan too. Computers in classrooms seem superficially to be a good idea but in my experience they are more trouble than they are worth. To quote Scotty from Star Trek, "The more you complicate the plumbing the easier it is to stop up the drains."

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Recycled From Facebook:More About The Last Minute Culture

This last minute thing about China is really baffling at times.A couple of weeks ago, at 7 pm on Sunday night,  I got a call telling me that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday they had exams so I didn't have to go in. How can you NOT know until Sunday night that you have exams on Monday? How do the students manage to revise?

Recycled from Facebook: More About Chinese Packaging

More on Chinese packaging. I just bought a box of tea bags. From outside to in the packaging consisted of 1) shrink-wrap 2) cardboard box 3) more shrink wrap 4) foil wrap 5) individual paper sleeves 6) the actual tea bag.

Recycled from Facebook: More About Chinese Road Safety

I've mentioned before that crossing the road in China is a dangerous thing to do.Drivers and riders routinely ignore signals and markings, drive on the wrong side of the road and generally show zero awareness of any other road user, motorised or pedestrian. So I was surprised on my way home today to see that the Yangshuo authorities had stationed some traffic wardens at the crossroads at the end of the street.
What were they doing to help safety? Good question. Normally people here, me included, also ignore the lights and cross when it seems safe to do so, whether it's the little green man or the little red man showing. These "wardens" were forcibly stopping this activity then making people cross with the green light. They were doing nothing at all about the traffic or the danger. When I tried to cross because the road was empty one blew his whistle and angrily pushed me back onto the pavement. When the light turned to green he pushed me out into the traffic where I was almost run over by a moped coming from the wrong direction and had to run to dodge a coach that had run the red light. I can't help thinking that their time would be better spent enforcing the traffic regulations.

Oh yes, almost forgot, when I had safely made it to the other side I counted them. On that one junction I saw NINETEEN of these people, all, apparently, hell bent on increasing the pedestrian kill rate.

Recycled from Facebook: On The Day That I Was Born...

... BBC was showing news of a state visit to France, a "Woman's Hour" style program called "Mainly For Women", Andy Pandy on Watch With Mother, Michael Bond's "Napoleon's Day Out (about an escaped parrot), a film about a school trip to Icecland, Nat Temple And His Orchestra, Vera Lynn SIngs, a documentary about Adolf Hitler, a comedy play set in Wales, an interview about the budget with the Chancellor of the Exchequer - Peter Thorneycroft, M.P. , and an episode of an American comedy series - I Married Joan.

Sounds like a belter of a night. TV was just a little different back then.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Recycled from Facebook: Must Give Clearer Instructions

Another one from today's class. I asked a student to stand up and read the work his group had just done.
He stood up and started to trace his finger under the line, following it with his eyes.

Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have told him to read it out loud.

Recycled from Facebook: Pipistrelle

A friend challenged me to rewrite Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat from Alice in Wonderland as a double dactyl.
So I did. Here it is.

Winkily twinkily
Soprano pipistrelle*
Up in the sky so high
What are you at?

Just like a tea-tray, you,
Flitter and flutter by:
Such a fine bat.

* Initially I had "tiniest pipistrelle: but that, it was pointed out, isn't a proper name. Soprana pipistrelle, a species of bat, is.

This Year's Christmas Message From China

Of course you should have received this by email but I always manage to miss someone off the list, so this is for anyone inadvertently omitted.

It's been a mixed sort of year.
It started off with me confined to my apartment in Baiyin with my leg in plaster, missing planned parties and a holiday in Shanghai. Not, it has to be said, my most optimistic hour. While that was happening it also became clear that I wouldn't be able, for various reasons, to continue in that city for another year. As that's where Teresa lives it still didn't raise my spirits. I would be there for another term and then have to move. So, in June, I moved to Yangshuo, which is about a thousand miles away. The intervening months were, as you might expect, a bittersweet time. We determined that we would try to maintain our relationship but both of us knew that such a long distance would make things difficult.
Down in Yangshuo the job and the school turned out to be pretty good and the city certainly has a lot of advantages (and a few disadvantages). I'm happy in my school and I have a great (if very cold) apartment. I have plenty of western friends here though virtually no Chinese ones – it's a town full of ex-pats. I get to go to bars and quizzes and even to perform my writing in front of people who speak the same language!
All that is good.
Not so good is that I have seen Teresa for a total of ten days in the last six months – just two visits. We talk a lot on the phone but it looked for a while as if we would split up – we actually agreed that we would – but somehow we are struggling on.
I'll be up to visit her in January before a brief trip back to the UK and then it's back here to run another teacher orientation course before starting the new term.
With less than a week to go to Christmas things are looking quite good for the next couple of months. I'll be out reading poetry on Tuesday night, at a Christmas buffet in one of the bars on Wednesday night, hosting a Christmas quiz on Christmas Day, chilling at a movie in my local bar on Friday night, back for more poetry the following Tuesday, at a half-prize closing down party in Demo bar on the day before New Years Eve, at a New Years party on New Years Eve and finishing school on 10th January to fly to Baiyin on 12th. The expat community here is nothing if not lively.

Fun as all that sounds. I'd still rather be having a quieter time in Baiyin. At least when I had my leg in plaster Teresa could come and visit me every day. I don't think I'll be able to move back to Baiyin as there isn't a job there for me, but I will probably try to get somewhere closer than here next year. I'll be looking into that as soon as I get back from England.

Anyway, as it's Christmas, it's time I wrote another festive greeting for everyone.

All My Christmases At Once

I've spent Christmas in the jungle, in the desert, up a mountain;
I've spent Christmas in the places even Santa doesn't go;
I've spent Christmas in a busy bar that overlooks the fountain
In the square in Cuzco, another Christmas without snow.
Kathmandu for Christmas Eve, and Prague for Christmas Day
I've spent a happy holiday wading up a stream
I've been so many places where you couldn't drive a sleigh
With just a single reindeer, never mind a whole damn team.
Christmas dinner has been turkey but I've also eaten rice
I've even eaten reindeer (though Rudolph doesn't know)
In Nepal I had goat curry, though it wasn't very nice,
And as I said before, another Christmas without snow.
I've spent Christmases with strangers and others with my friends
I've spent Christmases with family and some all be myself
I've been to workplace parties where everyone pretends
They haven't seen the mistletoe that's hanging on the shelf.
This Christmas I'm in China, although I've changed my city,
And I'm sending you this greeting from Yangshuo,
This year I'm spending Christmas in a place that's rather pretty,
Though as I said before, another Christmas without snow.

Merry Christmas,

Friday, 19 December 2014

Recycled From Facebook: Notes from a pointless exam

Part I
I have, at the school's insistence, begun to do oral English exams for all the students. Today I have done one hundred and eighty five exams in two hundred and forty minutes which includes the admin time of writing down th names and grades.
My multiple choice question to you is this.
Do you think this exercise
a) will yield a great deal of useful information about the students' levels and progress
b)will yield some data that will require careful and detailed analysis
c) will yield only a little meaningful data but nevertheless data that can inform and guide future lessons
d) will yield absolutely no data at all and is a pointless waste of the two lessons per class that it is taking up, and is only being done so that school can say that it has been done.

Yes. d) was my answer too.

Part II
Another hundred or so tested today in the continuing exercise in futility. I did get one laugh though as I relentlessly dumbed-down the questions for the weakest students. Asking one student "What is your favourite animal?" he managed to latch onto the word "favourite" and plucked a word that he thought might fit from his limited vocabulary and answered "water melon".
On the downside In have rarely felt so frustrated at doing pointless tasks in my life as I have felt this week and I'm only about a third of the way through it.
Sixty more tomorrow, then a week off for a Christmas lesson then the other half of the students in the week after Christmas and the classes I missed on Monday in the last of my teaching weeks this term

Part III
And now the School has cancelled the Monday and Tuesday classes in the week I was going to do exams (couldn't do them this week as they were cancelled too!) which means that those classes will have to do their exam next week and will not have the fun and games Christmas lesson the other classes are having.

Part IV

Honesty isn't always good for the ego. During one of the oral exams today I asked a girl, "What is your favourite lesson?" and she answered "I like your lesson'" As I had done with every other student that I asked this question I followed up with "Why?" and was told "Because you don't give us homework."

Recycled From Facebook: Not Missing The Christmas TV

Sometimes I am glad I'm not in England.
And having looked at an article that lists the pick of the Christmas TV, this is one of those times. Call me picky if you like but with Strictly Come Dancing, Paul O'Grady and Miranda all on Christmas Day I can safely do without it. Granted that there is Doctor Who but there is also Call The Midwife and Downton Abbey. Of course there is the repeat of Still Open All Hours which is worthwhile enough in its way but is, all the same, a repeat. So, on the whole, I'm really rather happy to be somewhere that isn't England and to be missing all the Christmas treats on TV.

Star Trek New Voyages

For anyone who is interested the latest fan produced episode of Star Trek is up on YouTube. Pretty damned good it is too.

Recycled from Facebook: Not The Answer I Was Looking For

Today I had to teach my Tuesday classes extra lessons in one of those "working the weekend because they gave us a day off in the week" situations. As it was just one day's classes I pulled out an off-the-shelf lesson. It's an old standard the main activity of which is for groups of students to list ten items they would take if stranded on a desert island. I've had some weird answers in the past but few as weird as one of the groups in my strong class. I don't know what they expected to find on the island but their list included TNT, C4, AK-47s, RK-62s and, bizarrely, a Gatling gun. An impressive knowledge of military hardware, historical and modern, but perhaps not the answer I was looking for.

Recycled from Facebook: National Poetry Day

If I Were Back In England: A poem for National Poetry Day

If I were back in England
Right now I'd take my pen
Stare blankly at the page for half an hour
I'd sigh and draw a doodle
Then put it down again
And scowl into the mirror, maybe glower

If I were back in England
I'd feel obliged today
To write some poetry, with or without the muse
So I'd take the pen once more
Maintain my blank-faced way
While the paper seemed to whisper, “Bob, j'accuse”

If I were back in England
National Poetry Day is now
Not yesterday, tomorrow or next week
So I'd force the words to come
I'd pull them out somehow
I'd find a way to write the verse I'd seek

But I am not back in England
So there is no obligation
I can write or not write simply as I will
Of course that makes it easy
This act of new creation

And I hope this poem's one that fits the bill.

Recycled From Facebook: Pointing At Things

Well, I had hoped to do some Chinese lessons now that I'm here in Yangshuo but I just went to visit the school and it doesn't look possible. The sensibly priced courses are during the day when I'm working, and evenings and weekends are one to one private lessons only which would need half my salary to get a reasonable amount of time and practice. Looks as if I'll just have to keep on struggling by with pointing at things. It's a strategy that mostly work but fails utterly to persuade the bus driver to stop at the place where I wish to get off.

Recycled From Facebook: Dave

My computer doesn't like Dave. Not any actual living acquaintance named Dave, Dave the TV channel. How do I know? Well, a while back I had a problem where my computer (probably because the monitor was exhibiting a known Dell fault) would randomly shut down with a message saying "Digital Input Detected: Entering Power Save Mode"? Well that fault went away, but now it's back... but only when I try to use the "watch again" function on Dave. I can use the BBC iPlayer without problems and I can use the ITV player but Dave on Demand shuts down randomly between five and thirty minutes into anything I try to watch. Anybody got any ideas why this should be? I suspect my computer just doesn't care for comedy repeats.

Monday, 29 September 2014

World Famous In Yangshuo

The most recent posts (all posted in a bit of blitz in the last ten minutes) are all, in my mind, a bit of a cheat as they were all posted first on Facebook (and yes, I know I wasn't going to use FB or social networking but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds).
So, to redress the balance, here's a post that's just for here.

Since I moved to China I have, of course, continued writing poetry. Some of it has been posted here and in other places - much of it hasn't. The one thing that I thought I would never get the chance to do again until I return to England was perform it. After all I was living in Baiyin where the entire audience with language skills capable of deciphering a spoken poem would have been one - the other teacher who was there. I did, as you may recall, perform a couple of my poems at a formal dinner to the assembled staff of my school in the first term that I was there but I doubt anyone understood them. (Well two people did - back then there were three of us teaching in the city.)

So fast forward to three months ago and I moved to Yangshuo, a city with considerably more English speakers. There are plenty of tourists, plenty of locals with decent language skills and, crucially so it turns out, plenty of ex-pat teachers. Of course having people who understand the language isn't enough. They still have to be formed into an audience. Tourists are unlikely to want to come all the way to China to hear a poet from Wolverhampton reciting and the locals seem more bemused than enthralled by the concept. Where then could I find an audience of ex-pats willing to sit through a set?

I was spending a week teaching some Chinese teachers from Xi'An about British life and culture when the organiser of the course decided one night to take us to a bar that I hadn't previously known about - The Lounge. It proved to be a small but comfortable place with shelves full of books, comfortable armchairs, a nice patio area, a pool table and some reasonable bottled beer. It also had a notice on the wall saying "Tuesday - Open Mic".
I enquired, without much expectation, whether the open mic was just for music or if I could perform poetry there. The owner was delighted. They normally had singers, he said, but anyone was welcome to perform anything.

So I did a set of poetry. I know my business and made sure it was all light weight amusing stuff and it was pretty well received by the twenty or so English teachers who attended. And the next week I did some more and have done every week since when I have been able to go. There are about five regulars who are prepared to get up and have a go so I can do a decent length set, just like being at home. 

Last week I broadened out into reading from my travel book, Anyone Can Do It, and this week I am going to read a set about North Korea that includes both prose and poetry and was originally performed at the now sadly defunct Bilston Voices.

It's great to be performing again and, wonder of wonders, people seem to be enjoying it. Earlier in the week I was out shopping when someone stopped me and told me how much he'd enjoyed hearing about life in Quito and asked when I'd be back. 

Well, that's tomorrow night sorted out then.

proud of my lack of knowledge, as always

For no better reason than that I can now do it again, I just watched an episode of BBC quiz show "Pointless". In the first round contestants were given fourteen titles of hit songs from 2000 to 2009 and had to name the artists. Of the fourteen I knew that "Oops... I did it again" was Britney Spears BUT only because I think the heavy metal  Children of Bodom version is hilarious. Not only did I not know ANY of the others but when the answers were revealed I had only heard of five the artists and STILL didn't recognize any of the songs. Once again, I feel so proud.

Look - it isn't a holiday! Got it?

Had another of what the Chinese insist on calling "holidays" a couple of days ago. No matter how I try I can't convince anyone here that giving me Friday off but then having me work Friday's schedule on Sunday isn't a holiday.

More signs of the times

I feel old. On the BBC website is an article titled "My summer living without broadband" in which a journalist named Zoe Kleinman bemoans her fate at having to live for a couple of months with slow internet access. Back in my day (he says, channeling his dad) when I left the house I didn't just live without broadband, I didn't just live without wi-fi, I didn't just live without internet, I didn't even just live without computers. I lived without a telephone because a telephone was something that was in your your house, not your pocket. I expect that thirty years from now Zoe will be writing something just like this about whichever technology is then current. There's an outside chance I might still be alive to read it. And I'll still be feeling old.

It's... er... a joke

Appearing in my newsfeed on Facebook because a friend had commented on it was a claim that Nigel Farage had said "What we need is a fairer system that involves employers paying what they want, being able to sack people when they want and for whatever reason they want." I have absolutely no time time for Mr Farage but the quote seemed suspiciously unlikely. Sure enough it took me a whole five seconds to source it to NewsThump - a satirical website which has its most recent story (at the time of writing) an item saying Tesco will be selling limited edition cans of beans at one million pounds a can. On Newsthump (31 December 2012) it's put into the mouth of Iain Duncan Smith along with the quote "we need to encourage people off benefits and into mortuaries".
Does no one these days have the critical faculties to spot a joke when they see it?
By all means criticise Mr Farage but criticise him for things he's said and done, not for recycled jokes from a satirical website.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

It was better before

Can't help feeling a pang of regret that the owner of "Gan's Noodle and Dumpling Restaurant" has had a nice big, new, shiny sign painted. That's all very well but in the process he's corrected what was my favourite spelling mistake in the city. The old sign read "Gan's Noodles and Dumping Restaurant".

Saturday, 13 September 2014

And on and on

Did you ever have one of those nightmares where you keep on dreaming that you have woken up only to have it start again? Well my visa situation is like that. When I reported the last episode I had returned from Hong Kong and revisited the Yangshuo Public Security Bureau and been told that I needed to send my passport off to the Guilin PSB again. The office told me I didn't need to go personally. Yesterday I discovered that the person responsible for sending it off has left it sitting on his desk for eighteen days, apparently completely forgotten. This only came to light because I asked. Had I not asked it would have sat there until the thirty day visa expired and as that can't be renewed again I'd have been on the next flight out. This means that today I've had to miss lessons to go to Guilin in person where they have taken it away from me again and told me I can get it back on the 8th October. So far the renewal process which normally takes a few days has been going on for FIVE MONTHS and there is no guarantee that it will be right this time. I am seriously considering just packing it all in and finding a contract somewhere else.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Nightmare In Hong Kong

On Friday 15th of August at 1:30 I decided to put all of my clothes except for the ones I was wearing into the 24 hour laundry round the corner. This may appear to a random remark with no relevance to anything but all will become clear later.

I've had the week from hell and it began a few months ago. It all started when I decided that I would quite like to go home to England for the summer but would need to have a summer job to pay for it. I've taught for many summers at a summer school in Harrow and applied to do it again this year. Now, for those who don't know, if you teach in England you have to have what used to be called CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks and are now called DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks. These are to ensure that you have no criminal record that would stop you working with children. Unfortunately, if you work overseas, part of this is that you must also have the local equivalent. China, where I work, doesn't have a local equivalent. The school in England went to a great deal of trouble to help me with this and I also went to a great deal of trouble to arrange a letter from the Chinese authorities that would act in place of such a document. I gave my passport to the police who kept it for over a month but eventually returned it with a letter. In that time I had been corresponding with the school to arrange things. On the same day that I got the passport back I got the news that the Chinese authorities had, yet again, changed the visa process.

I need to digress for a moment and explain about visas. To work in China you are supposed to have something called a residency permit but that's only issuable in the city where you are working. To qualify for the permit you need to already have a Z-visa which is valid for thirty days and gets converted to the permit. Once it's been converted the theory is that the residency permit can be renewed indefinitely without needing to get a new visa. This renewal has to take place a month before your old permit expires but generally takes about a week to accomplish.

Or so it has in the past. The new rule was that in order to get the renewal you must turn over your passport to the authorities for twenty days during which you will be given a receipt that, in their words, “will act like a passport for identification within mainland China but will not permit you to leave the country.” This meant that I would be unable to go to England. I wasn't very pleased by this and the school I was to go to even less so. They told me that they will not consider employing me again as long as I am resident in China.

Here's where it starts to get complicated. Pay attention there may be a quiz.

My existing permit, for Baiyin – a city in Gansu – expired a week before my teaching was due to finish. A few days after my teaching finished I was due to fly to my new home in Yangshuo. So a month before it expired I handed my passport in to get a one week extension that would give me time to get to Yangshuo and hand it in again. As days went by I became increasingly nervous. I didn't want to try to fly leaving passport behind. Finally, on the evening before I was due to fly, my administrator returned my passport with a visa that had (for no reason I could fathom) been extended for four weeks. I flew to Yangshuo.

In Yangshuo first of all I had to go for medical checks and having passed those I was sent to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) in Yangshuo where a very belligerent policeman questioned my at length about where I would be living in the city (I don't know yet), who was my contact at the school (I don't know yet), how I had got the job there in the first place (I know but had been instructed not to say because it would cause “complications”), why I had left my previous school (I told him) and where was my document from the school permitting me to leave (I didn't have one).
He told me to go away and return when I could provide answers.
The next day someone else went on my behalf and somehow answered all the questions. However I was instructed that I needed to visit the PSB in Guilin so the next day I went to Guiln and handed in my passport. In return a piece of paper saying they would return it twenty days later.

Twenty days passed during which I did, not without some difficulties, travel around China using the document I had been given.

I returned to Yangshuo and on 15th August at 2:30 my passport was returned to me. For whatever reason – incompetence, bloody-mindedness, Satanic evil or just because they could – they had issued an extension that expired THAT DAY at Midnight after which I would be illegally in China. My company said I would have to go to Hong Kong and get a new visa.

Remember what I'd done at 1:30?

That's right, I had no clothes at all except the ones I was standing up in. I told you the relevance would become clear. Nevertheless, and over my protestations that I would arrive at the border AFTER the visa expired, I was placed on a bus going to the border town of Shezhen.

I arrived at the border nine hours after the visa expired. Unsurprisingly they noticed and detained me. I was kept for about four hours after which I had to sign a document which was written entirely in Chinese except for the single, rather ominous, sentence, “I admit to the above crimes”.

Now, to back track for a moment, I had been told to make my way to Tsim Sha Tsui where, at Chungking Mansions I would be able to find a room for about 150 Hong Kong Dollars a night. The trouble was I couldn't find a room. At any price. Chungking is a huge rabbit warren of a building filled with hostel businesses and because it was a summer holiday weekend every single one of them was full. Outside touts were offering rooms for anything up to 1800 HKD. Eventually, despairing of ever finding anywhere, I met a guy in one of the hostels who spoke fluent Cantonese and had negotiated a room for 600. They had another room and after some haggling on the phone my company said they would pay 600. I checked in for the night.

It was Saturday and I couldn't do anything about the visa until Monday. On Sunday, with my new friend's help, I located another hostel in another district for 450 HKD and moved.

On Monday I went to the Visa agency that had been suggested. The took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and refused to apply for my visa. They told me I had to go to the Chinese embassy. My new friend agreed to accompany me.

At the embassy, after filling in forms and queuing for a long time I went to one of the visa windows where the lady took one look at my “I admit to the above crimes” document and told me I must go home to England and apply from there. My friend interceded in Cantonese, explaining the circumstances of my overstay and with visible reluctance she agreed to process my visa and told me to come back on Thursday.

From then on things went relatively well. I booked a flight for Friday, picked up my passport (with only a thirty day Z-visa, but at least it got me back into China) and made it back to Yangshuo on Friday night where I picked up my clothes and changed into something clean for the first time in a week.

Of course, at the moment, I still don't have a residency permit, just a thirty day single entry visa. I am hoping that nothing else extends my week from hell. The three months that it's lasted so far is quite enough for me.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Driving In China

Chinese Rules of The Road

1.    Right of way works on the “chicken” principle.
2.    Driving is on the right. Unless you prefer the left. Motorcyclists may optionally use the pavements. (In either direction)
3.    Use of lights at night is optional for all vehicles except motorcycles and bicycles for which it is forbidden.
4.    All vehicles must sound their horns at least once for every thirty metres travelled, or thirty seconds elapsed, whichever is shorter.
5.    Pedestrian safety is the responsibility of pedestrians. It is forbidden to slow down to avoid hitting them.
6.    All road marking, road signage and traffic light systems are purely decorative.
7.    Whenever driving you should look only straight ahead. Checking left or right is forbidden especially at junctions.
8.    When reversing “blind” from a narrow space onto a busy road, no assistance may be sought or given.
9.    Overtaking is ALWAYS permitted but no account must be taken of oncoming traffic. Blind bends are the preferred location.
10.    Where a road has multiple lanes you may only change lanes if there is less than one metre between your new position and the car immediately behind you.
11.    Where a road has multiple lanes AND they are marked by white lines, the purpose of the white line is to indicate where the centre of your car should be positioned.
12.    When merging onto a busier road it is not your responsibility to merge safely, it is everyone else’s responsibility to get out of your way. Your car will go into any gap that is at least one centimetre bigger than the vehicle.

While these rules may be somewhat cynically stated, they are in broad principle correct.

If you doubt me I found this video on  YouTube which is nothing unusual, just an everyday drive in any Chinese town. It lists a few more rules that I missed above.

 Now go out, have your brain surgically removed and apply for that Chinese license.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Watching the crows

I saw on the internet that they are planning a remake of the Crow, not a variation or a sequel but a remake. My first thought was, here we go again – instead of choosing one of the poorer films and remaking it to be good one, they're taking the one that was damn near perfect first time out, the one that doesn't need a remake, and making it again. It seems to be the pattern.
My second thought was that maybe I should watch the four Crow movies again.
So I did.
The first crow movie is, as I said, damn near perfect. It's visually stylish. Underneath the violence it has heart and even a streak of sentimentality. Brandon Lee's performance is excellent and the only thing that mars the movie slightly for me is that there is a small but significant change to the original comic book. In that, the original crime was genuinely motiveless – mayhem and murder for its own sake. The movie adds a reason in the interests of plot and to my mind that undermines the actions of the Crow. Still, it's a small point in an otherwise favourite movie.
Crow: City of Angels and Crow:Salvation are the second and third movies in the franchise and there are a couple of serious flaws that they share. The first is that the directors (Tim Pope and Bharat Nalluri respectively) both choose visuals over sense. Sensible and consistent plotting is secondary to whichever visual conceit has crossed the director's mind. So, for example, in City of Angels the Crow erupts out of the water where his mortal form was drowned and hangs in a crucifiction pose hovering in the air. There's no explanation and moments later he is apparently back in the water and dragging himself painfully up onto the pier. It looks good but it makes no sense. Similarly in Salvation the villain likes to insert screws into his arm causing the major scarring that's the main plot driver but no reason is ever given for it, just as no reason is ever given as to how or why he has a secret and rather gruesome taxidermy lab completely unnoticed in the police station.
The second flaw is that both directors seem to have got the idea that a vital element of the Crow mythos is sexual fetishism. It's less of a problem in Salvation because it's at least vaguely connected to the story – in City of Angels it just forms a seedy backdrop to the action – but in either case it's a prominent feature of the movie.
With all that said Salvation at least tries to take the story in a new direction. Eric Mabius' Crow is both more menacing and more nuanced than Vincent Perez manages. City of Angels is just a pale, failed retread of the first movie with vastly inferior performances and scripting and that sexual fetishism is just about the most pointless thing in a pointless movie.
So, what about Wicked Prayer?
It's bad. It's excruciatingly bad. From the text-on-screen introduction of the bad guys to David Boreanaz ludicrous overacting to Edward Furlong's portrayal of the Crow as a petulant goth teenager, the whole thing is awful. And that's before we get to the stone bonkers plot about Boreanaz wanting to become the antichrist and bring hell on Earth or Dennis Hopper visibly making plans to fire his agent in every scene he's contractually obliged to appear in. It has about as much in common with the other Crow movies as a pet goldfish has with a great white shark. It's a bad Crow movie and it's a bad movie in it's own right.
For all that I don't hate it as much as City of Angels. Wicked Prayer is just utterly incompetent, City of Angels seems to have willfully distilled everything that was great about The Crow and then thrown it away and kept and amplified everything else. It rehashes the whole of the first movie in such an inferior form and with so much gratuitous rubbish that I actually find it offends me.

What, then, of the proposed remake?
Personally I'd rather see a new take on the tale but if the have to remake something, why not Salvation. Imagine how good it could be if it were remade with all of its flaws fixed; with the weirder plot points expanded and explained, with villains who weren't just cardboard cutouts.
That would be a movie worth seeing.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Driving: A Mystery Solved

One thing that baffles and terrifies foreigners living in China is the driving. It baffles us because we cannot see how anyone - driver, motorcyclist, cyclist or pedestrian can survive for a week without getting, at the very least, seriously injured. It terrifies us because crossing the street becomes an activity more dangerous than juggling chainsaws, and riding in a taxi leaves us deposited at our destination as a quivering nervous jelly, vowing that we will never ever set foot in any vehicle again.

Drivers seem to apply one very simple rule. Look only straight ahead, ignoring all other road users, and assume that everything else - on wheels or feet - will get out of the way.

They pull out of intersections without ever looking at the road.
They change lanes without warning, heading into gaps that you would swear weren't wide enough for a skateboard.
They hit the pedals as if they are mentally playing an especially complicated piano sonata rather than hauling round a couple of tons of metal.
They happily ignore traffic lights, one way systems and marked lanes.
They treat pedestrian crossing as being purely decorative.

In short they are terrifying.

And now I know why.

My girlfriend is taking driving lessons and the description of them answers all of those questions. The process of learning to drive in China goes something like this.

First you take a written test where you answer a set of one hundred questions from a bank of nine hundred. You read the book, learn the answers by rote memorisation and take the test. At this stage you don't need to have ever sat in a car.

Then you take lessons. She is taking lessons at a Government sponsored driving school. The lessons are one hour but there's a catch. You don't take individual lessons you take group lessons consisting of someone telling you how to drive. In your group's time slot there will be about ten people learning. In any given lesson you will have a maximum of about ten minutes actually sitting in a car. It may or may not be moving at the time. These "lessons" take place at the centre, on simulated roads with no other vehicles present, and not on roads which bear even a vague resemblance to actual driving conditions.

Once you have started taking lessons you can book for one of the pre-scheduled driving tests. This is a short test on the roads immediately around the driving centre which is in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the actual city.

Then there is another written test on road safety and then you get a license. With such a haphazard and inefficient way of learning and with no exposure to actual driving conditions before they let you on the road is it any wonder that for 2010 China recorded more than 65,000 road traffic fatalities. The wonder is that it isn't orders of magnitude higher.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Loglan and lojban

A small correction - Lojblan ISN'T the language formerly known as Loglan though it did grow out of that language's creation. It's a separate language based on the same principles.

Lojban Alice In Wonderland

I recently discovered that there are a number of Lexicon Valleypodcasts that I hadn't heard and have been working my way through them. Episode 33 was entitled The End of Ambiguity and dealt with an artificial language that was originally known as Loglan and is now called Lojban. The aim was to create a language in which ambiguous utterances are impossible and it is, or sounds to be from this podcast, insanely complex. Possibly literally insanely.
To give an example from the podcast there are 25 different ways to say “and” in Lojban.
In the sentence “John and Mary carried the box” there is one word for “and” if we mean together and a different word for “and” if we mean alternately. A third word is used in “John and Mary are friends.” where it means that considered jointly they are friends.
The language, quite frankly, sounds nuts.

I was intrigued enough that I shall be reading more about it later. Lojban as such wasn't the main point of interest for me. That came a few minutes from the end when I discovered that there is a Lojban translation of Alice In Wonderland. Of course I had to check if I could find one. And find one I did.

Here are the opening paragraphs. To me it doesn't even look like a language, it looks like an especially complicated cipher.

1 ni’oni’o pamo’o mo’ini’a le ractu kevna
no’i la alis co’a tatpi le nu zutse le rirxe korbi re’o le mensi gi’e zukte fi noda
i abuboi so’uroi sutra zgana le cukta poi le mensi cu tcidu i ku’i cy vasru no
pixra ja nuncasnu i lu ji’a ma prali sei la alis pensi fi lo cukta poi vasru no
pixra ja nuncasnu li’u
i abu ca’o menli jdice to sekai le xagrai selka’e pe va’o le nu le glare djedi
cu rinka le nu abu lifri le nu sipydji je bebna toi le du’u xukau le nu pluka fa
le nu zbasu lo xrula linsi cu se vamji le raktu poi nu sa’irbi’o gi’e crepu loi
xrula icabo suksa fa le nu lo blabi ractu poi xunblabi se kanla cu bajra zo’a
i la’e di’u no’e ba’e mutce le ka cizra ijenaiji’a la alis jinvi le du’u ba’e
mutce le ka nalfadni kei fa le nu tirna le nu le ractu cu sezysku lu oiro’a
oiro’a mi lerci li’u to baku ca le nu abu pensi la’e di’u kei abu ri te sidbo le
du’u ei ri abu cizra i ku’i caku piro ri simlu le ka rarna toi i ku’i ca le nu le
ractu ca’a lebna lo junla le kosta daski gi’e catlu jy gi’e di’a sutra kei la alis
spaji sa’irbi’o ki’u le nu lindi pagre le abu menli fa le si’o abu pu noroi viska
lo ractu poi ponse lo kosta daski a lo junla poi ry ke’a dy ka’e lebna i bai
le nu kucli kei abu bajra pagre le foldi gi’e jersi ry gi’e u’adai viska le nu ry
canci mo’ine’i lo barda ke ractu kevna noi cnita le spabi’u
i baziku la alis mo’ine’i jersi ry gi’e noroi pensi le du’u ta’i ba’e makau
abu ba za’ure’u bartu”

Who'd have thought that randomly listening to an old podcast would find me such a strange new version of my lifelong obsession.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

That's a relief.

Just read this interesting article about the way we allow ourselves to believe things printed on food labels.

The article is interesting but I was relieved when on a second reading of this sentence I realised it didn't say "pancreas" as I'd first thought.

"but the mythic power of vitamin C lives on thanks to our insatiable desire for panaceas"

Thursday, 29 May 2014

And in the same lesson....

Another activity in this week's game is really easy.
All the student has to do to get the points for his team is make a grammatically correct sentence using one of a group of very common words.

The word in question was "little".

He pointed at his friend and said "My friend has a little brother."

Unfortunately for him I know that "little brother" in Chinese is a slang term for "penis", so I understood exactly why the class was laughing. His face was a picture when I told him that I understood, though his friend's face seemed to indicate that they would be having words after the lesson.


This weeks lesson consists of a game with various question types and activities to revise things we've done so far.
One of the activities requires a student to stand up and speak on a topic for 45 seconds. On Monday I asked a student to speak about China for forty-five seconds.
He stood, stared at his watch and started.

Chhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnaaaaaaaaaaaa: finished"

Seven words spoken in drawl so slow that they took forty-five seconds to complete. John Wayne would have been proud of it.

I gave his team the points and demonstrated the performance to every other class of the week. I've had them rolling in the aisles.


My apartment is only a little way from one of the main east-west roads in Baiyin. On this road a never ending stream extremely noisy cement mixers and massive trucks full of rubble rumble by heading from the east to the west. The puzzling thing is that an almost identical stream of cement mixers and rubble-filled trucks rumble by from west to east. What's going on? Are they engaged in some ritualistic, never-ending, Sisyphean task of driving rubble round in circles? Does one fleet unload in the west and the other fleet promptly load up and take it all back to be unloaded and reloaded in the east?
I've asked Chinese friends who all agree that it's a puzzler, but no one has yet provided any kind of explanation.

And in one further random oddity, tonight I saw a similarly laden truck heading  north to south.



Like many institutions here, the Baiyin Cinema always brings to mind the phrase "couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery". I tried, unsuccessfully, five times to see Iron Man, each time being given information by the desk that turned out to be totally wrong. Finally saw that on the sixth try when my girlfriend went with me. Even then it was touch and go as we were told that they didn't have enough customers to show the film and we had to wait for a few more to turn up.
In the case of Oz The Great And Powerful they weren't even able to pin the showings down to a date, let alone a time.
Tonight we'd planned to see the X-Men, but on arriving at the cinema ten minutes before the advertised time of 8:50 for the English showing we were told that for reasons unknown they had decided to switch the English and Chinese showings so that, should we care to see it in English we would need to wait for three hours. That would mean getting home from the cinema some time after 2:30 in the morning, not sensible when we both have to work in the morning.
Tomorrow's times are switched back, but clash with my work. Saturday's times are no good for Teresa and they couldn't tell us whether there will be any English showings at all on Sunday.

At a loss for what to do we considered our options. Neither of us can drink at the moment so bars were out. We had already eaten so dinner was out. My gout is flaring up so going for a walk was out. We tried the coffee shop but the smokers in there made it like walking into a thick fog which I really hate, so that was out. Teresa is staying at her mother's apartment tonight so going to hers and watching TV was out.

I know when I'm beaten. We called it a night. She's at her mothers and I'm back at mine.

Sometimes China can be incredibly frustrating.

Any other explanation?

The longer I teach in China the more convinced I become that the "last minute" culture is a deliberate attempt to control the actions and movements of the people here. There may or may not be exams at my school tomorrow. I may or may not have the day off. If I have the day off I may or may not have to work on Saturday or Sunday to make it up. It is literally impossible to ever make a plan here because it is literally impossible to ever find out what's happening. My next lesson at that school is at ten thirty tomorrow morning. It's now one forty. How is it possible that no one, no one at all, in the school knows whether there is an exam tomorrow? How can the school function under those conditions?
I am told that, in the absence of other instructions, I should make the thirty minute journey to school at the usual time where I may find my students doing an exam and be told to go home again.
At first I thought it was just schools but my girlfriend works in real estate and she can never tell me before six O'clock on Friday whether she has to work on the weekend. My friend Doctor Hu sometimes rings me up to go for dinner. He never does it with more than a couple of hours notice because he is never told further ahead than that which shift he will be working. My private student is usually accompanied by her father but sometimes it's her mother because her father has been given ten minutes notice of extra work he must do.
No other country in the world routinely works at such short notice. It makes it completely impossible to plan even short trips. A colleague was planning to go away on a camping trip with the parent of a potential student on Sunday. He has just, and I do mean just - Thursday lunchtime - been told that his Friday lesson is now being moved to Sunday so that trip is off.
Dragon Boat Festival is next week and this, in previous years, has meant a day off in the week, again made up on the weekend. No one, inside or outside the school, can tell me if or when it's happening though their "best guess" is Monday with work shifted to the following Sunday.
Everyone here is so used to this that when I mention it they find it remarkable that anyone even thinks about it. When I tell them that school timetables in other countries are known before the academic year even begins they look at me with incredulity or outright disbelief.
The only reason that I can think of that this would be so is that by keeping people in the dark until the very last minute the authorities ensure that no one can make plans. And if no one can make plans it's so much easier to control their movements and actions.
The fact that it makes everything function so inefficiently doesn't matter when your principal aim isn't success but control.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Embarrassing but true (the story, not the remark!)

Just had a weekend in the city of Yinchuan. Very nice it was too. On the walk to the bus stop to head for the station and home we passed a number of buildings with extremely scantily clad women in the brightly lit windows. Allegedly massage parlours it was clear that, in spite of official denials that such things exist in China, they were brothels. I joked to me girlfriend, "Do I have time?"

Her answer?
"The bus comes in five minutes and you must take  your clothes off and back on so... yes."

The cheek of it!

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Education supplement...

Prescriptivist views of language are alive, well and, apparently, worldwide. A student approached me yesterday. He's a bright kid in one of my strongest classes. He often comes to talk to me and, unlike some of the others, wants to talk about stuff that interests him... mainly movies and comics. This time though he started by telling me how sorry and ashamed he was. I was baffled. I had no idea what he was apologising for. After some questioning it seems that after our last conversation he had gone home and been working on a Chinese website that teaches English grammar. Here he had read that you must absolutely never say “I know” because it is appallingly rude. You must always say “I understand”. He had used the former rather than the latter when we were talking.
I reassured him that this is complete nonsense, just somebody's wrong-headed idea, but he didn't seem convinced.


I'm still having real trouble teaching some of my classes. The levels are just so ridiculously mixed. My classes are what is labeled “senior two”, which means the kids are sixteen and seventeen. Each week I have dumbed the lessons down a bit more to try to find the level they can cope at. This week I have been teaching a lesson that was designed for, and successfully taught to, “junior 1” in other schools. That's eleven-year-olds. Some of them still can't do it. The only way for me to simplify it further is to teach primary school or kindergarten lessons.
In every class I have a few students who are pretty good, a few students who are OK and a lot of students who can't do their end of the conversation that goes
“How are you?”
“I'm fine thanks, and you?”
“ I'm fine too.”
And that's the very first conversation every Chinese kid learns in kindergarten. Three-year-olds, come up on the street and initiate that one.


Teachers regularly ask me grammar questions. They are often quite interesting and though I (almost always) know the answers, occasionally I can't easily explain. And some give me a little pause for thought.
Like the one today.
The teacher showed me four sentences in turn and asked me what the differences were.
Sentence one was this: A bicycle has two wheels.
That was nice and easy. I didn't explain it in exactly these terms but the gist of it was that it is saying that any member of the class “bicycle” will have two wheels.

Sentence two was this: The bicycle has two wheels.
My immediate interpretation was the obvious one.
This particular member of the class “bicycle” has two wheels.

Sentence number three was: A horse has four legs.
Just like sentence one my immediate interpretation was that it means that any member of class “horse” has four legs.

And, of course, sentence four, predictably, was this:  The horse has four legs.
Unlike the “bicycle” example my interpretation here was that “horse” is a member of class “animal” and that all horses have four legs.

He nodded. My assessment was in line with what he'd read.
What he wanted to know was
a) can sentence two carry a similar interpretation to sentence four and vice-versa (The answer is of course, yes)
and b) why did I pick the different interpretations rather than the same one.

And that's where I couldn't answer. I could only say that they seemed like the correct interpretations to me even though the other one remained a possibility in each case.

Sunday, 11 May 2014


Here is a stunningly tedious video of my daily bus journey to school. Might be of very slight interest to anyone who wants to see where I live. Forgive the grainy quality. I tried to upload it in a better quality but the upload was going to take about a week according to the displayed speeds.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Elementary Shark Jumping

(Warning: Spoilers)

Watched the latest episode of Elementary.
Remote control robot mosquitoes? Equipped with cameras? And the ability to inject a sufficient dose of a deadly poison to kill someone in about three seconds.
First time I've ever actually watched a program as it was in the process of jumping the shark.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Ghost Town

We are not at work this week so my plan is to do nothing. Sit around the apartment. Relax. Play on the computer. The trouble is that my apartment, as I mentioned before, is cold. I was sitting here working when I glanced out of my window and realised that it's actually a beautiful sunny day so I decided to go for a walk to get warm. Seems a peculiar state of affairs when you have to go out to get warm, but there you are. This is China.
Anyway, I decided to go for a walk. Now, I live almost at the northern limit of the city so naturally I decided to go north. In my early days in Baiyin, when I used to go for long walks regularly to familiarise myself with the place, I went for a walk to north, but that was a couple of miles further west , following one of the roads out of the city. Today I went straight north from my apartment, across the railway and along a dusty track. I was startled to find myself in a well-developed, modern town. There were clearly several thousand residential units in the new, clean apartment blocks. There were easily a couple of hundred retail units. There were offices. There was even a small park and a school. Of course somethings weren't there. Roads, for example. The spaces between all the buildings were unfinished sandy dirt tracks. Unfit for walking on, let alone driving.
Oh yes, and people. There were no people. The apartment blocks were clearly unoccupied with uncurtained windows and, where I was close enough to see, no furnishings or other signs of habitation. The retail units were shuttered and closed and obviously unused. The offices were vacant. The park had trees and benches but no signs of human life. The school had obviously never heard the tread of child's foot or the sound of a child's voice.
It was a ghost town. Built but never occupied. It was bizarre and eerie... and only ten minutes walk from my aprtment.
I continued on, out of the other side of this strange non-town and back onto the expected sandy paths. The path turned left, heading further west. I followed it expecting eventually to strike the road that I had walked on months ago. When I took that walk I passed an area of what can only be described as slums. They were visible from the elevated road though there was no obvious way to reach them. They consisted of single story brick buildings, shored up with random pieces of corrugated metal, old scraps of wood, odd pieces of furniture pressed into service as walls. I had seen smoke rising from the chimneys and people moving around. They were clearly inhabited though equally clearly not connected to electricity, gas or water. It looked a grim way to live.
I found today that my road angled down towards them. From this level they were stranger still. They consisted of a large number of walled dwellings separated by dirt paths. The walls surrounded them completely, with a single gate into each. Usually the walls were brick. Occasional they were augmented with random pieces of repurposed metal or wood. I strolled on down between them, sure that it would bring me to the road. What it brought me to eventually was a ten foot high wall between me and the road that stretched off without a break as far as I could see in either direction. I'm not sure why it's there unless it's to prevent people from the prosperous part of the city even seeing this less prosperous are but it was inconvenient for me. I turned around and retraced my steps all the way back to my apartment.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Cold Part 2

And now... a hailstorm.
What is going on with the weather in Baiyin, this year?

Things I never got round to posting.

When I came here to teach - almost three years ago now - I had limited access to a computer, and no access at all to many sites because the Chinese firewall stops them. Of course now, like everyone else, I get round this ridiculous restriction, by using a VPN.

One of the effects of this was that I wrote a lot of stuff on paper that would be better on the computer. But I am notoriously disorganised. I lose things. There used to be a joke around my office that I could work with paper and pen and my desk and blink once and lose the paper and pan. Blink twice and I'd lose the desk. So I lose most of the papers. Yesterday, while going through a large box of papers I found some of them. So I'll post some of those early observations here. 

Some may have appeared before, in the intermittent access that I had back then. Some may be no longer relevant. There may be things I thought that I don't think now. I'll post them anyway.

The originals are written on various scraps and in various books so they are in no particular order.

This one is on a piece of paper and was probably written last year when I had a couple of hours in the office every Tuesday afternoon at school eleven.

* * *

There probably isn't a school or college anywhere in Europe and America that can't tell you on day one of the new school year when every holiday and every exam day will be. Probably for several years to come. Here, in China it's different. The impression is that they make it up as they go along. For example there are a couple of days due for Tomb Sweeping day and I'd quite like to get away to Xi-An for a break but the best information available is that it will be "some  time in early April".
And we may or may not be required to make up time on the weekend. Given that today is MArch 26th this is rather short notice.

This last-minute culture runs through everything from schools to organising a dinner party. No one ever seems to plan ahead by ore than about five minutes. It makes life difficult. I want to make that trip to Xi-An but it's far enough away that's it's only practical if I can go for several days. I am certain there will be periods when I have several days off consecutively but I probably won't know when they are until the day before they happen... far too late to book flights and hotels.

And it occurs to me now that, cynical though this may sound, it's a hell of an effective way to control the movements of your population without being seen to do so.


Back in England I probably went out to dinner three or four times a year. This may be atypically low but there are many people who go out less. There were no places to eat out in th immediate vicinity of my home but a bus ride into town would put me instriking distance of twenty or thirty - if we include pubs that do food.
Here in Baiyin there are probably more than that within a hundred yards of my front door. Thre are three in my building*. Most of these are tiny places seating a dozen or less but they are almost always full. Eating out here is considerably more common than at home.


My apartment* building occupies only a little more ground space than my house and garden back home did. When we moved into that house, way back in1963, there were five of us. My parents, my grandfather, my brother and me. At the end, when I moved out in 2011 there was just me. That same ground are here has an apartment block containing six floors of four apartments with an average occupancy of about three. That's 72 people. That's the pattern for the whole city.


People in China don't drink cold water. You can get it if you try hard enough but it's an uphill struggle to convince the waiters in a restaurant that you really mean cold water. Even when you convince them it's likely to be lukewarm rather than actually cold. Iced-water is flat out impossible to get.
Instead they like to drink hot, even boiling, water, What caught my eye in the office today was that when one of the teachers wanted a drink she poured half a cup of hot water from the large flask in the corner, washed it around to clean the cup and threw it onto the floor. In school eight, where i also teach, this wouldn't be a problem. The floors there are of untreated concrete and would soon soak it up. The school eleven floors a re all tiled and polished. the water just sat there in a puddle that gradually dispersed over the next thirty minutes as people walked through it. It seemed an odd practice.

* * *

And that's all that there is on that piece of paper. It was probably time to head off and teach at that point and so it would have been stuffed into a pocket and forgotten until I found it yesterday. Next up we will have some slightly edited posts from way back when I arrived in China.


Some Chinese cities have a system where the domestic heating is controlled by the authorities and comes on for the whole on a fixed date, stays on for three months and then goes off for the whole city on a fixed date. Right now I am sitting in my apartment in an overcoat and have taken my gloves off to type this. A month ago I was sitting in an apartment in T-shirt and shorts with the windows open to let out some of the excessive heat. Great system isn't it?
(In case you were wondering, my apartment has no other heating system and if I plug electric heaters in they blow the fuses!)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

You think America's weird? Try China!

I saw on a friends FB page this link; and felt that I had to post a reply. Here it is.

Since I moved to China from the UK I have got used to all sorts of things. The writer of the article about the US doesn't know how normal and straightforward living in the US is compared to living in China. And I once described visiting the US as so weird that it was like having your attention distracted from the two-headed dog by a singing giraffe.

Comparing those "weird American things" to China…

1. Portions? We don't really have portion sizes over here. Sometimes meals are served banquet style with the dishes coming on serving plates for you to help yourself. Chinese hotpot has a boiling soup and raw meat and veg for you to drop in, cook and fish out. More food keeps coming whenever you finish what's on the table. The only way to stop people bringing more food is to leave some of the food on the table uneaten. This is a bizarre concept for Brits who are brought up to finish everything on the plate.

2. Flags? They might not be on every home here but they are in every classroom and on every public building. Perhaps not the ubiquitous patriotism of the US but strange enough to Brits who might see a flag occasionally on a town hall but might just as easily go their whole lives without seeing one at all.

3. Price tags? Pshaw, I say, pshaw. Prices mean nothing here. You bargain for everything except food (and even for food it's usual to ask for money off a large restaurant bill.) A friend once helped me bargain for some sweaters in a shop. They started at 300 Yuan each and she got me two for a total of 190. Price tags are an opening bargaining position. You don't know the price you'll pay until you run out of steam in the negotiations.

4. Tipping? Americans tip a lot. Brits tip only for good service, and then not much. In China tipping is almost unheard of. It used to be illegal.

5. Advertising. Hard for me to comment as I can't speak or read Chinese. When it's done in English it can be incomprehensible. You may have seen the attached photo before. It's floating around on the internet (usually uncredited) . I took it. In Baiyin a couple of years ago.

6. Cars? Ah, cars. Everything here isn't designed for cars. And that's odd because there are so many of them. The road quality is usually poor. Drivers make up the driving rules as they go along and crossing the road can be a perilous and nerve-wracking adventure.

7. TV? I don't really watch. Not much point. There is an English channel but it's filled with political programs that I have no interest in. What little I've seen of Chinese TV seems to be full of soap operas set during the war showing a stereotyped view of the evils of the Japanese in a way that says far more about China than about Japan.

8. Aerosol cheese? Lucky old Americans. Any kind of cheese would be welcome here. Chinese rarely eat it and on the very rare occasions that it appears in the supermarkets it's in the form of those cheese (and I use the word loosely) slices that are really a kind of solidified fat and are (to steal from the Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy) almost, but not quite, entirely unlike cheese.

9. Oh really? The problems of living in a country that speaks another variation of your own language are insignificant compared to the problems where they don't speak your language but would like to. I hear "Hello" about a thousand times a day. Total strangers engage me in conversations which are nominally in English but which I cannot understand a word of. Also they find it weird how much I say "thank you". At the check out in the supermarket I say it when I am handed a bag, when I am told the price, when I get my change. I hadn't realized just how much we say "thank you" in Britain until people here started giving me strange looks.

10. Toilets? All you can find to complain about is toilets that are too low? Try a country where the typical toilet is a bowl recessed into the floor, then come back and tell me about American toilets.

11. Pickles? I had lunch yesterday which included a fruit salad. A delicious bowl of banana, apple, pear, melon, kiwi fruit and mango. All drenched in a sour vinegary salad cream That's right. Over here they put salad cream on fruit salad.

12. Sport. One I can't comment on. I have no interest in sport, no way to watch it and nothing to see. They do a lot in school but I only see that from my classroom window.

13. Jaywalking. I don't know if it's a crime here or not but it seems to be a national pastime. Watching people cross the road fills you with amazement that there are any pedestrians left alive. I have literally NEVER seen any Chinese person check for traffic before stepping out into the road.

14. Sweet Bread? Where to begin? You can get unsweetened bread here sometimes but you need to search. Bread sold in the shops and supermarkets is so sweet that I find it inedible. It's like trying to make an egg sandwich on a slice of cake.

15. Soft drinks? You don't get refills here which may be just as well. The soft drinks are sometimes flavours you might like but just as likely to bean juice or corn juice. I couldn't manage to empty one cup so the lack of refills is a blessing in disguise.

16. Volume? Chinese people aren't loud as such but listening in to their conversations they often sound very angry. Only when you look at them and realize they are smiling and friendly do you realize that this is a feature of YOUR expectations about tone being different to theirs.

17. Water in toilet bowls? See 10 above.

18. Credit Cards? I tried to use mine exactly once. The Chinese machines wouldn't read the metallic strip on the back. Since then it's been in a wallet in my drawer.

19. Pledge of Allegiance? The patriotic levels of the US fade into nothing compared to the patriotic levels of China. There isn't a pledge as such but loyalty to the state is built into every activity and every breath.

20. Lawyers? I've never seen a lawyer advert here but Chinese bureaucracy is arcane and mysterious. Achieving anything that involves officials might take minutes or months and you won't know which until you try. You will never know why.

There are many other things that foreigners will find strange in China. I may comment on them. Or I may not. I've been around the world enough to know that it's the differences that make it fun. It would be really boring if everything was just the same as it is at home.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Wow! Lucky me.

Just got this email.
What I love about this kind of con-trick spam is the staggering levels of incomprehensibility they achieve. Apart from being mostly gibberish this one is especially fond of randomly using capital letters.

Dear Esteemed Beneficiary,

Inline with the United Nations Millennium Development Goal to eradicate
Poverty and hunger by the year 2015 i am directed to INFORM you that  your
payment is completed Verification and Confirmations, 'Therefore we are
happy to INFORM you that ARRANGEMENTS have been Concluded to Effect  as
Soon as Possible your payment in Our BID for transparency.

You have been Granted the SUM of $ 500,000.00 USD in the United Nation
Development Program UNDP world Aid / Support Promo, for your Personal,
community and Education Development and do Note that at least 40%
(Percent) of Total Fund These must be use for Such Purpose.

COLLECTS The United Nations of all the Email Addresses Online persons that
are active among the Millions that subscribed to the Internet and  only
five persons every Year as Our Beneficiaries are selected through
Electronic System without the winner Applying BALLOTING.

On that Note we congratulate you for being One of the Beneficiaries.

To File for your claim, you are requested to contact the events Manager /
Claims Department, send your winning Identification Numbers and  the
following Information.

These are your identification Numbers: 

Only five a year, eh? I feel so special. I wonder if anyone ever really falls for this kind of nonsense.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Making a difference

We do make a difference. I received an email about half an hour ago from a student I taught last year in Junior 1 (Grade 7, 12 years old). This was it (completely unamended, exactly as the student wrote it)

Dear Bob,
Hello!How are you?
I am a student in the No.11 middle school of Baiyin City in China.I am in Grade8 Class 1 now. Have you remembered?
We have not your class this year. And we have seen neither you nor Megan since this term began.Where did you go?Have you gone to another country? Or just have gone to another city in China? Will you come back?
Thanks a lot for returning every e-mail from me.Do so many students write to you?
Best wishes for you.And looking forwards your e-mail.
Miss you very much.
Yours sincerely,

I replied briefly and a few minutes ago received this one from the same student.

Dear Bob,
You always reply so quickly.I'm very glad to know that both you and Megan are still in China.And I'm surprised that you are still in Baiyin,too.
Our lessens are good.And we are still working hard.But without you and Megan, everybody is a little unhappy.
I'll tell my friend your e-mail.They will write to you.I'm sure.
Thank you again for your replying.It's deep night,so you needn't to reply.
Good night.

I really wish that I thought anyone in my current Senior 2 class (Grade 11, age 16) could produce work that good.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A little bafflement

I've been watching with a kind of fascinated bafflement the redevelopment of one of Baiyin's parks. It's an impressive undertaking. Paths are being rerouted. Covered walkways and viewpoints are being constructed. Water features and elaborate fountains are being constructed. Stone steps are...hang on! Water features? Fountains? We are in a city in the middle of the desert. We don't have enough water to keep the little grass that we have green.
It's not unusual though. The nearest- and largest - park is Goldfish Park. There are several fountains there including, at the main entrance, two beautiful six foot tall goldfish which should, in an ideal world, spout streams that cross and then fall into the waiting pond. But it isn't an ideal world. We are, as I said, in the middle of a desert. I have been here for three years and I have never once seen ANY of the many fountains in Baiyin working.

But they keep on building them. The ones at the entrance to the newly redeveloped park are, if the publicised plans are to be believed, supposed to be very impressive. There are two stone bridges which arc over a flowing channel. Jets are to spray up and over in splendid powerful arches. Multi-coloured lights will illuminate them. Marvelous stuff.

And that's the source of my bafflement. Why, in a city that has so little water, do they go on building these expensive and extravagant water features everywhere? What's the point of fountains that never get turned on?