Blog News

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

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

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

Saturday, 31 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.