Friday, September 1, 2017

Chinese Lessons - 中文课

Summer is almost over and I start teaching again on Monday. All my free time is about to evaporate. It will be nice to have something outside the apartment to do again. However, it really takes away from the task I have poured myself into all summer.

Red and I have been taking Chinese language lessons.

After living in China for almost a year and being essentially clueless about everything the entire time, we've decided to finally tackle the language.

I've made and memorized hundreds of flashcards.

I have notebooks filled with pages
of practiced Chinese characters

As I mentioned in a previous post about learning Chinese (click here), there are literally thousands of characters to learn. And so many of them seem to make the same sound when pronounced. The difference is very subtle. And for the many that actually do make the exact same sound, you just have to pull the correct meaning from context. From context. In a language I am already clueless about. This seems more and more like an insurmountable task, but I'm tackling it anyway.

Despite its difficulty, learning Chinese definitely has it moments. For example, last week I learned the character 太. This is a very simple character that pops up quite often. It is an adverb that basically means 'too'. If something is too much or too loud, you would use the character 太.


However, almost every character can be paired with another character to create an entirely different word. For example, the character 天 (day or sky) when paired with the character 气 (air) produces 天气 (weather). It makes sense.

Here are a few others:

女(female) + 人(person) = 女人(woman)
买(to buy) + 电(electricity) = 买电 (power bill)
长(long) + 大(big) = 长大 (grow up)

Pairing two characters together to make another word prevents having to create a separate character just for that one word. Since there are already thousands (have I mentioned there are thousands?) of characters to learn, I am less suicidal very grateful for that. Especially when you see some of the entertaining pairings. Earlier, I explained that 太 means 'too; overly; excessive', but what happens when you pair it with itself.  e.g. "overly excessive.

太 (too) + 太 (too) = 太太 (wife)

There is no explanation needed here.
The joke writes itself.
The married guys get it.

Since I can now recognize some (0.0000417%) of the characters, all the signs and ads around the city have words that jump out at me. This means that they are starting to make a little more sense.

This is one of the stops on a subway near my house.


Before taking Chinese lessons, I only saw this as Dawanglu, but I have since learned that 路 (Lu) is a word for street or road. So, it's Dawang Street. I've also learned that 大 (da) means 'big'. That means that this subway stop is for Big Wang Street and who isn't curious about a big wang? And whose wang was SOOOOO big they named a street after it?

Because I can only recognize some of the characters on a sign, I have to try to infer the meaning through context. For example, here is a sign that is outside a construction area near our apartment.


Now, I can't tell you exactly what it says, but knowing enough of the words paired with the context of the surroundings means I can deduce the general meaning.

In the middle of the day,
a person who is 21 must go out to get beer.

It is good to know that the construction company takes care of its workers, but does it in a legal way.

For weeks, I've seen this (↓↓↓) advertisement on the wall in the subway station and never had any idea what the product was for.


After this week's lesson, I now recognize the last two characters on the ad. I'm not positive about exactly what each word is, but I feel that I finally understand its purpose.

人 (person)
生(to be born)

This ad seems to be urging people to consider traveling to the mountains to have their babies on this beautiful waterfront. It's an excellent marketing campaign.

Until I can read and speak every word that I see, I must keep my nose in the books and practice with every Chinese person I meet. And there is no shortage of Chinese people in Beijing.



Here's how most lessons seem to go.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to Basics

We moved to Beijing on September 27, 2016 and earlier this month we went back to the States for the first time since moving here. Despite the Trump presidency and everything we've been told in the media, the country was still there and we got some much needed work done.

It was great to get to see family again, but this trip was intentionally planned to serve two main purposes. We needed to empty out our storage unit and sell Red's car.

We had a 5x5 foot storage unit in Indianapolis full of all sorts of stuff we couldn't decide what to do with when we first came to China. When we moved here a year ago, we literally brought three suitcases with us. That's it. Our entire lives were condensed down to what could fit into three suitcases. That is all we brought to Beijing.

To get it down to so little, we got rid of tons of stuff.
  • Threw crap into the dumpster
  • Took truckloads of furniture and clothes to Goodwill
  • Donated to food pantries and shelters
  • Contacted people in neighboring apartments to come see what they wanted
  • Cried out to people on Facebook to take things off our hands
  • Posted sales flyers in the laundry room to unload furniture
  • Gave dozens of bottles of liquor to wandering vagrants

However, there were items that we just couldn't part with despite knowing that we couldn't bring them with us. And items that we didn't want to pitch if we were going to be coming back in a year. That was part of our dilemma.

We were going to China almost completely blind. We knew frighteningly little about what we were getting into. We had encountered endless difficulties getting straight answers to the questions we asked and had encountered a quagmire of legal chaos in obtaining the gargantuan amount of paperwork required to work in China. We had no idea if this venture was going to pan out and how long we would be staying which made it difficult to decide what to do with our stuff.

See, if we were going to be back in a year, it would have sucked to come back to nothing and have to start watching for abandoned furniture on the side of the road again. However, we couldn't take on the expense of shipping it all to China if everything is just going to fall apart and we were going to have to ship it right back again in a year. Since we didn't know how long it would take to track down a Chinese fortune teller once we got here, we decided to get a storage unit and come back in one year to empty it. At that point, we should know what we are doing and will be able to make better decisions about our belongings.

Something happened on this trip that I hadn't expected. We ended up just pitching about 75% of the stuff that we originally thought we couldn't live without. After going without that stuff for an entire year and never really giving it a second thought, we realized that most of it was just stuff. We really didn't need it. We tossed it in dumpsters, gave more stuff away, and made many more generous donations to Goodwill. We ran up to Red's sister's house to leave a few things with her (family cedar chest, dresser drawers, and a few other things), but once again got our "needed" belongings down to a few suitcases. However, this time we don't feel like we left anything behind. We have everything that we need.

Plus, everything is so cheap in China, we can just buy stuff here if we need it. That's how I got my panda.

After we got our stuff taken care of, we found a buyer for Red's car. So now, we don't have a car sitting in the States that we are still making car payments on.

No car payment + no car insurance + no storage unit fee = about $400/month

Now I can buy more pandas.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Forbidden City, Great Wall, Monster Trucks, Etc.

It has been a crazy week. In the last few days, I have celebrated my wife's birthday, attended Monster Jam in Beijing, visited the Forbidden City, and walked on the Great Wall of China. I'm exhausted. And tomorrow, we're hopping on a plane to fly back to the States for the first time since we moved to China.

MONSTER TRUCKS! - A whole lot of this.
A few weeks ago, I got a Facebook message from my high school best friend's high school girlfriend's little sister. She informed me that her soon-to-be sister-in-law worked for the monster truck show Monster Jam and they were coming to Beijing. Would I be willing to show them around?

Now, I don't know this girl, so...I jumped at the chance.

You may not know this, but when you move 12 time zones away from everyone you know, you tend to not get many visitors. Whether you actually know the person or not has no bearing on the excitement level.

I quickly friended this woman on Facebook and started informing her of some of the things she may need to know for traveling to China. When she texted me to inform me they had landed, I made it to their hotel before they did.
As soon as they got checked in, I took them to the Nanluoguxiang Hutong to get them an authentic Chinese experience right off the bat. Over the next few days, as soon as they would finish working, I took them to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, out for a Peking Duck meal, and the Beijing Harley-Davidson shop.

I walked up 58 flights of stairs for this shot.
I hope you appreciate it.

I finally caught my breath enough to lift the camera again.

The petals are Peking Duck.

The (not so) Forbidden (anymore) City

Just like every other Harley shop in the world.
Except the t-shirts say BEIJING.
Other than the meal, this was all stuff that I had never done. Despite living in Beijing for the last 10 months, I spend most of my time setting panda traps to keep them out of my garbage. So, I was excited to get to knock something else off my bucket list. Walking on the Great Wall was #127. Now it's time to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

After such an eventful week, they gave me tickets to attend the monster truck show and then I had to sleep for two days. After all the running around, I went for a massage and decided to try another new thing. I asked for the cup treatment where they heat up glass cups and attach them to your skin to suck the toxins out of your muscles.

6 hours later, I look like this.
It's been a good week.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Chinese Language is All Greek to Me

The title of this post isn't really accurate because I took biblical Koine Greek in college. Saying something is "Greek to me" is supposed to mean that it makes no sense, but the fact that I actually know Greek takes away the punch of the statement. However, if I were to say "it's all Tagalog to me," the purpose of the idiom would be lost and some people may even have to pause to look up what Tagalog is which would sever the continuity of the thought and I would have to stop to explain everything. Which it looks like I may have to do anyway.

Maybe I should just say learning Chinese is like walking into your bedroom because you thought you heard a pygmy goat being strangled by a Mormon divorce attorney, but when you open the door the floor is covered in slimy eels wearing clown makeup and a naked Roseanne Barr is sitting on a beanbag in the corner asking if you brought any cheese. It just makes no sense. Especially since I don't own a beanbag.

Oh, and Tagalog is the language spoken in the Philippines.

I only say all this because after living in Beijing for 10 months, Red and I have finally started taking language lessons and it has been…um, challenging.

Chinese doesn't really have an alphabet. At least, not as we understand an alphabet. It is thousands of separate characters. And by thousands, I mean thousands. This is not an exaggeration.


We don't really have to know the characters in order to speak and understand the language, but that doesn't help when trying to read a menu, street signs, bus schedules, or apartment notices. This note is in our lobby right now.

Are they doing maintenance? Fumigating?
Evacuating the building?
I kind of need to know!

So, we are learning it all. We need to understand the language when we hear it. We want to speak it, read it and even be able to write it when the need arises. This means we have decades of memorizing seemingly obscure chicken scratch patterns ahead of us. As well as learning what they all mean and how to pronounce them while stringing them together into comprehensible sentences.

However, before we even get around to learning those characters, first we need to learn pinyin. Pinyin is the method for learning how to say the different characters.


Each of the thousands of characters is pronounced with a combination of the initial sound (pictured above to the left) and the final sound (pictured above to the right). And, as if that isn't already difficult, it is not enough to be able to recognize those apparent English-looking letters because the pronunciation is rarely what it appears to be.


The sounds of the letters have to be relearned to make the Chinese sound. And since I already have a background in not only English, but Greek, Hebrew and Spanish as well, it is often maddening to try to remember and produce the correct pronunciation since each of these languages use letters however they want without regard for what the rest of the world is doing with them. And let's not forget that Chinese has plenty of sounds that don't even exist in any of these other languages meaning I have to do 90 minutes of tongue yoga before every lesson to get it limbered up.

Then, once I feel like I might have a decent handle on pronunciation of a word, I am told that I used the wrong tone. A single sound can have up to five different tones and each tone gives the word an entirely different meaning.


For example, the above chart shows four of the five ways that the word 'ma' can be pronounced. These tones are important. Otherwise, you could end up calling your mother a horse or you might really confuse your weed dealer.

It also shows the two different ways that each word is written in Chinese. Yeah, that's right. When you learn Chinese characters, you have to decide which of their TWO alphabets you want to learn. Isn't this fun?

Using the word 'ma' from the chart above, I can just use that word several times, but with different tones to produce an entire sentence. Ma ma ma ma. That means "My mother scolded me for feeding her hemp to a horse." And if I tack the fifth use of the word 'ma' (neutral tone) to the end of the sentence, it becomes a question.

Simple enough, right?

For now, my goal is to be able to read my Frog and Toad books in their original Chinese by Christmas.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What Did I Do Wrong?

I love Thursdays.

My teaching schedule is Monday through Thursday, so it is the last day of my work week. Plus, on Thursday nights, I go to an English salon. It is a place where a bunch of Chinese adults get together to hang out with native English speakers and practice their English.

At the very least,
a burger has to be made of ground meat.
I don't know why it's called a salon. The Chinese sometimes have funny names for things. For example, any piece of meat served on something that even slightly resembles bread, they will call a burger.

As near as I can tell, a salon is basically an informal teaching setting. The English salon that I attend is in the front room of a school, but it's set up like a living room. It's usually me and 5 or 6 Chinese locals who all want to talk to me. And this is great for me because I love to be the center of attention. Plus, I'm pretty awesome, so it works out for everyone.

We talk about the differences between China and America. We talk about food. We talk about travel and spend a lot of time talking about American politics. Everybody always wants to know what I think about Trump. The conversation flows freely. There are no suggested topics. It is just conversation that happens naturally. Once again, the purpose of this is just to give them an opportunity to practice their English outside of a classroom setting. I love going to this every week and I even get paid to be there. It's great.

Since I don't have to work the next day, when it is over I am not usually in a rush to get home. My wife, on the other hand, has an early day on Fridays. This is why she never attends these events and is generally in bed pretty early. Since she will be in bed when I get home anyway, I often find excuses to find something to do. Sometimes I wander the streets and call one of my friends back in the States. Some weeks, I will go try out a new restaurant or explore a new part of the city I've never seen. Last night, I just decided I would walk home instead of taking the subway.

It's only 9 subway stops. No big deal. Right?
It's over 7 miles, but I didn't know that yet.


The school is right next to the subway stop and the number 10 subway runs right under the Third Ring Road. I live next to that same road. All I had to do is follow the road and I would see some parts of the city I'd never seen above ground. I popped into a convenience store to grab a Pepsi and started be-bopping up the road. I enjoy exploring big cities and this night was no different.

About 20 minutes into my walk, I started to become very aware of the 96 degree temperature, but was determined to push on and I kept walking. I walked and walked and walked and walked while the sweat poured into my eyes. It was miserable, but I began to see this as a challenge to overcome and stayed my course. I maintained my quick pace and made it back to my apartment building in just over two and a half hours.

I was so happy to step into the elevator and begin the ride up to my shower. The ride seemed to take forever due to the Chinese belief that air conditioning is unhealthy and I no longer had the benefit of the night breeze. I was roasting in that metal box. I finally hit the eleventh floor and found my way to our apartment in the dark (the Chinese also seem to have some belief about light being bad for you). I turned the handle and pulled the door only to discover that it was locked.

Red doesn't lock the door on Thursdays before going to bed because the sound of me unlocking it always wakes her up, but it appeared this week she had changed her mind. I dug out my keys and tried to turn the lock slowly to keep the noise down, but the key turned too easily.

It wasn't locked.

I tried the door again and realized she had locked the bolt on the inside. The bolt cannot be unlocked from the outside. It is a hand bolt on the inside only.

Crap! Now, I'm going to have to wake her up.

I knocked on the door while also being careful not to disturb our neighbors. After all, it was after midnight. There was no answer. I knocked again louder, waited 30 seconds and then knocked even louder. Nothing.

I pulled out my phone to call her, hoping that she had not turned the sound off. As I started to dial, I thought, "Wait. Is she mad at me? Is that why she locked me out?" I started running through the day's events in my mind to think of what I might have done.
  • I ordered food to be delivered while she was in the shower without checking to see if she wanted anything.
  • When she apologized to our Chinese teacher for distracting the lesson by talking too much, the teacher said, "Oh. It's not a problem." I was too quick to say, "Just wait."
  • I had bragged all day due to all the retweets my joke about her squishy boob was getting on Twitter.
  • When our attractive female Ukrainian friend suggested Red use some of Red's essential oils on her, I asked if I could watch.
No, it couldn't be any of that. I do that kind of stuff all the time and I'm precious.

I called her phone. No answer. I sent her a text message. I left a voice message on WeChat (Chinese social media app). I called again. Nothing.

I knocked on the door much harder. I have to wake her up (or apologize). After several more attempts, I began to realize that I was not going to be spending the night in my bed.

I started looking around for a place to lie down and quickly ruled out lying on the filthy concrete floors in our hallway. I was going to have to go outside, find a bench and ride this out until morning.

I checked my phone. It was at 40%. I figured if I stayed off my phone, then when she does wake up and realize I'm not there, she will probably call or text to find out where I am. If, and only if, I haven't drained my battery, I would get the call letting me know that she was now awake. I didn't know where I was going to go, but I knew I was tired and hot and really needed to get back out to that breeze and find a place to ride out the night.

My sweaty hands made my finger slide off the elevator button when I pressed it and I began contemplating what a miserable night this was going to be. This was going to suck. As I waited for the elevator, I thought I'd use those last few seconds trying again. I knocked one more time and then immediately again hoping to further register the sound in her sleepy mind, but still got nothing.

Defeated, I lumbered back toward the elevator. As I waited, I heard a small click behind me. She was fumbling with the lock! I ran back to the door. "It's me. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that or eaten all the food or tweeted about your boobs. Please let me in."

The door slowly swung open and she's crouched down covering her naked body with her hands and peering into the dark hallway. As I stepped inside, I could see that she wasn't really awake yet. "Why are you crouching like that?"

She said, "I'm naked and didn't know who it was."

"And you opened the door anyway. I love you. Go back to bed. I need a shower."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cave Dwellers

When I was a kid, our family vacations often consisted of going camping at Rend Lake in Southern Illinois. Rend Lake is the lake that was a few miles from our house, but to make it feel like we were on a major journey, our parents would always take us to camp on the other side.


Now, we did have some fun times, but I would yearn for the times when we would go further than the next county over. And get to sleep in an actual bed. And didn't have to catch our food if we wanted to eat. And use a real shower.

I don't blame my parents. A trip to the lake was a low-cost vacation and we didn't have a lot of money. Plus, the main purpose for a vacation is to get away from the stress of work. My dad worked hard in a coal mine and just wanted to get away now and then. Planning a big trip often just causes more stress and my father was of the belief that encouraging man's careless eagerness to live indoors just exaggerated that stress.

Despite the desire to stay close to home and eat burnt potatoes dug out of a campfire, sometimes we had to venture further out because my mother's family lived on the other side of Missouri. On one of our trips to visit them, we made an unscheduled stop to visit Onondaga Cave. I don't know how our parents felt about it, but that cave blew my brothers and I away. It was awesome. From that day on, anytime we were in the St. Louis area, we would beg to go back and see the cave.

On one of these trips, as we saw the interstate sign advertising that the cave was 87 MILES AHEAD, we started our usual pleading and my mother pointed out that there other caves beside that one. Now, that may have been true, but we had not seen those other caves and as stupid children (you may have noticed this about your own children), we wanted to see the one we knew we loved.

Despite how adorable we were, my mother denied our request and forced us to go to Meramac Caverns instead. Once we stopped crying about how horrible our mother was being to us, we looked around and noticed that this cave was even better than Onondaga. It was amazing. From then on, we became cave people.
Wait. Not "cave people" like we quit school and started living naked in the caverns while eating the few bats we could knock off the ceiling and using their guano to protect our skin from the sun when we stepped outside, but "cave people" like people who really enjoy caves.
Every time we were on a road trip, we kept our eyes open for cave systems and since Missouri has over 6,000 chartered caves, there were plenty to find. Our vacations started to center around cavern systems instead of the local lake. One of our vacations even took us to Arkansas because of a large system of caverns we were eager to explore.

On one of these trips, Dad heard about a cave we could explore ourselves and we drove out in the middle of BFE to find it. We went down miles of dirt roads and eventually parked in a field and started walking. It was a long walk, but we eventually found the mouth of the cave and ventured in. I was in junior high and my brothers are 3 and 5 years younger than me. This means that we are significantly younger and more nimble than our parents and were able to move through the cave more quickly and easily.  As the ceiling of the cave got lower and lower, my brothers and I pulled further ahead.

Before long, it required crawling on our hands and knees to progress further. Our parents checked our lights and told us we could go a few yards up to see if it opened up on the other side. If it did, they would follow us through. We edged forward as the ceiling lowered and lowered and soon had to pull ourselves along on our bellies. We yelled back that we were fine every time we heard our parents voices calling for us and continued forward.

As the ceiling started scraping our backs when we moved forward, we decided to move over into the small stream that was flowing beside us. The water was freezing, but the erosion of flowing water gave a few more inches of space to work with. Unfortunately, the ceiling was still getting lower as we progressed. We eventually had to flip over onto our backs and just keep our faces above the water as we pulled ourselves through. Imagine lying on your back in about a foot of water unable raise your head out of the water because there is a slab of stone about two inches above the surface. This is what we were pulling ourselves through. Of course, now that our ears were underwater, we could no longer hear the cries of our parents screaming for us to answer them.



We slowly pushed forward with no regard as to how we would back out of this if the ceiling got so low we couldn't breathe or what our plan would be if the water started to rise. Remember my earlier statement about children being stupid? We inched along and began to notice that we had a little more space than before. We were soon able to flip back over to our stomachs and move much faster. And then, we found the opening. It opened up into a HUGE room. Stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns were everywhere. It was beautiful.

As much as we wanted to see everything, we could see that there were several paths out of that room and did not want to get lost, so we needed to head back to let our parents know that there was a room back here and they could come on through. We went back into the hole we just came out of.

Using the same method of lying on our backs to breathe, we inched our way back to our parents and surprisingly found them much sooner than we expected. When they were no longer able to hear us, they had done their best to follow us and prayed we didn't all get lost in there forever. They stopped in one of the little rooms we had found not knowing where we had gone after that. They didn't realize there was a path deeper in if you were willing to submerge yourself in water and pull yourself through on your back. Who was being stupid now?

I think that was the first time I ever got grounded on a subterranean level.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

Red and I have been in China for nine months now and we have one of those "first-time since arriving" milestones coming up. We are going back home to visit.

Now, we have not even been here a year yet, but since our jobs are in the education field we have chosen to take advantage of the summer school vacation to come back to the States to clean out our storage unit and tie up a few loose ends we weren't sure what to do about before we left.

We have a list of tasks we need to do, but there are several things I have been fantasizing about ever since we booked the plane tickets.

No, China, no!
Bad China!
Learn what a hamburger is.
The meals we each want. As much as we love the food of Beijing (and we do love it), the food here leaves much to be desired when they attempt to create a food from other places (for example, any place outside of China). It took us almost four months to find a decent pizza here, over six months to find a hamburger I could choke down, and we still haven't found anything that remotely resembles Mexican food. Eggs are always radically overcooked and I think they boil their bacon. I've had Mountain Dew exactly twice in nine months and I had to pay a fortune to have it shipped to me from Thailand. And lastly, I miss American-style Chinese food. I plan to visit the #6 China Buffet in my hometown. That may sound crazy, but you can't get any of that stuff here in China.

Walking down the street knowing what's happening. Right now, we can't read the street signs, we don't understand the conversations around us, we can't appropriately respond to store clerks or waiters questions, and we're basically guessing about everything all the time. We have gotten pretty good at shutting the world out to prevent mental exhaustion. Although, we do have some concern that when we get back into an English-speaking country, the sudden influx of understandable dialogue and readable street signs may be information overload.

Having people laugh at my jokes. As a person who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm, back-handed insults and witty banter, it is sheer torture to be surrounded by people who don't understand my sense of humor. It's not just a language thing. The Chinese find totally different things to be funny. Just yesterday, I was explaining to a Chinese girl that I prefer to watch movies at home and don't really enjoy the movie theater experience because they won't pause the movie for me to run to the fridge and I always get thrown out when I take my pants off. She paused for a moment, looked at me scornfully and said, "No. You can't take your pants off" and then proceeded to tell me how nice the Beijing theaters were. A few months ago, I asked my boss (I teach English) how many kids I could choke each week before I would get in trouble. She just said, "We don't do that here" and continued explaining my pay schedule. I NEED people to laugh at me.

Let's go back to food for a moment. I want a steak. A big, fat, juicy steak. I've been out for steak a couple of times here and (once again) I don't know what they do to meat here, but I was depressed for a week afterward. I have to get a good steak while I'm in the States.

Step outside without people staring at us. We live in a very international city, but in a strictly Chinese neighborhood. There are exactly ZERO non-Chinese people living in our neighborhood. It is not uncommon for children to point at us or for us to hear the words 老外 lǎowài (foreigner) or 美国人 iguórén (American) from people who don't realize that those are two of the seven words we actually know. We are such a novelty, people even approach us to have their picture taken with us. I know I'm ready to just blend into a crowd and not be noticed.

"That man is so tall. How does he not fall over?"


Have a conversation with someone that is not my wife. I love my wife. Very much. She is my favorite person in the world. However, sometimes…just sometimes, I want to talk to someone who is not her. I talk to a lot of people, but due to language and cultural issues the conversation is generally quite shallow. I'm looking forward to sitting in a group conversation involving complete understanding from all participants.

We really need to learn Chinese.



Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Am Who I Am

Since moving to Beijing, I have been continually amazed at how much of my previous knowledge about China and Chinese people is totally wrong.
  • Rice is not nearly as prevalent as I thought.
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's anthing? You will never find any of these foods.
  • Although it is a highly respected ancient skill, almost no one knows kung fu. Which means no kung fu battles on the streets.
  • Their children are not math geniuses.
  • There is an alarming lack of ninjas.
  • I have yet to come across a panda digging through a trash can.
These misconceptions work both ways. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the Chinese belief that all foreigners hate cilantro (click here to read it). Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, but I have had many encounters with people here who are surprised that I am not what they consider to be a "typical American".

My wife and I both enjoy spicy food. Now, I know that not all Americans can handle spicy dishes, but I know many people who love to test their intestinal endurance. Any time a dish is being prepared in front of us, when the cook gets to the spicy ingredient s/he pauses. "Oh, crap. This is for an American. They can't handle this stuff, but I can't just leave it out. That might be insulting and Americans like to shoot people." The cook then holds up the spoonful of red powder and gives us a look that clearly communicates, "Are you going to want this stuff." We always smile and nod 对 (duì, duì - yes;that's right) while we point to the dish. It becomes immediately obvious that they are surprised by that answer or concerned that we may not be sure what we just agreed to.

I don't care about sports. When a local here learns that I am from Illinois, they don't know what that means. But if I tell them it is where Chicago is, they want to talk about the Bulls. This is something I cannot do. All I know about the Bulls is that Michael Jordan played for them until he quit to make a movie with Bugs Bunny and sell underwear. Every kid wants to know what my favorite sport is and what teams I follow. Due to the language barrier, it takes great effort to get them to understand I don't care about any of it. They always seem genuinely confused. This happened in the States too, but at least I could explain that I think grown men chasing a ball is not quality entertainment.

I am not a big drinker of alcohol. I get the impression that Americans are viewed as being big partiers and I know there is a Chinese belief that Americans can hold their liquor better than the Chinese. Because of this belief, in social situations (even when work-related) they want to see this demonstrated. The liquor flows freely and there is always someone to keep refilling your glass or bring you a new drink whether you want it or not. I am not opposed to having a beer or two, but that's it. When I say I'm done, it always causes confusion and I am sure that I am breaking a few social rules. Although, on that one I am a typical American. I have no problem breaking social rules. Been practicing for years.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Power Game

On October 18th, I wrote about the adventure of paying my power bill in China. You can read that post here. Without getting into how difficult it was to pay, here is a recap of the money portion of it.



The picture above was taken on October 18, 2016. Those numbers are the amount of money that I had on the meter. In US dollars that is close to $75. Many people asked me how long I expected $75 to last, but I had no way of knowing at the time. My guess was that we were good to go for about a month.

I checked that meter every week for the next month because I didn't want it to run out and have our power shut off, but I soon quit checking because it moved slower than a stoned sloth on Ambien. I didn't look at it again until the beginning of May when we started using our air conditioner because the temperature hit nearly 100.

Once the air was on, it started moving (although slowly) and it got down to 125¥ about two weeks ago. That means it took seven months for us to use just under 400¥. For those of you playing at home, that is less than $60 for seven months of electricity usage. That averages out to less than $10 per month. It was under $4 when we weren't using the air conditioner.

I can't help but wonder why I always paid at least $300 every month for the same service when I lived in the States. I have a theory, but it's rather controversial and involves Kathy Griffin devouring the gall bladders of lab-grown goat embryos provided by the Illuminati to finance a third Paul Blart movie. I try not to get political here, so I won't get into details.

In the meantime, as the city outside is melting, I have no reservations about cranking the A/C up high enough to have icicles forming on our shower curtain rod since the monthly expense is less than a couple of Big Macs.



Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Relaxing Week

Living and working in China definitely comes with its share of challenges, but it has some great advantages as well. Today, I am enjoying one of those perks. I didn't have to go to work.

About a month after arriving in China, we experienced some horribly unpleasant weeks when we were pulled out of our jobs until our work visas were completed. This left us without work and without money. This experience led me to demand guaranteed pay in my next job. The school can make any decision it wants about how often my classes are cancelled, but my contract states that it cannot affect my pay. This clause has protected me several times.

Right now is one of those times. This past weekend was Memorial Day in America. Coincidentally, we also had a three-day weekend in China. However, here, it is the Dragon Boat Festival (忠孝節). We had to have school on Saturday because the holiday stretched from Sunday to Tuesday. Since we would be missing two days of school, they added an extra day at the end of last week to get one of those days back.

I reported back to work on Wednesday and was told that I would not need to come to work the following day because June 1st is Children's Day. School would be in session, but it would be a day of parties and there would be no need for English class. I also never work on Fridays, so I had a one-day work week. Lucky me.

Don't let their appearance fool you. All children are horrible.

Children's Day is a major holiday for children here. The kids in my class say that it is better than Christmas. The whole day is dedicated to them. In fact, the majority of my classes for the last month got cancelled because the children were preparing songs and skits for the Children's Day celebration. I have worked so little in the past month, this is why I am happy to have that guaranteed paycheck agreement. Time off is nice, but bills still have to be paid.

With all this time off, I have tackled many of the issues that have needed to be attended to. I have figured out food delivery, how to order stuff online, where to buy clothes in my size (Chinese people are significantly smaller than me), and how to repel panda attacks. I'm starting to figure out how China works.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Qing Ming Jie - 清明节

My wife and I are enjoying a few well-earned days off from our jobs this week due to another one of the Chinese holidays we do not have in the States, Qing Ming Jie (清明节). In English, we would call this the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and it is just exactly what it sounds like. On this weekend, people travel back to their hometowns where their parents or grandparents are buried and sweep the dirt off the grave that has collected over the last year.

This is one of the holidays which kicks off springtime in China. It is celebrated on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. OR…as westerners would say, it's the 15th day after the spring equinox. OR…as I would say, it's on April 4th or 5th each year. I don't know why it has to be so complicated.

Qing Ming Jie is similar to Memorial Day as it is a day to honor the dead, but that is about as far as the similarities go. In America, Memorial Day is celebrated like every other holiday that involves a three-day weekend. We get together to drink some beer and eat a bunch of grilled meat. At some point, someone may put some flowers on a grave somewhere. In China, there seems to be much more tradition involved.

And, as usual, since I spend most of my time with children, it is them that I turn to for my Chinese cultural education. And, since their English is very limited and my Chinese is virtually non-existent, sometimes they ask to draw me a picture instead of trying to explain something. I had no idea what this holiday even was, so two girls tried to draw it for me.


They are drawing pictures of graves.
After looking at the pictures and having a little back and forth with our combined limited language capabilities, I was able to determine that this was a day to commemorate the dead. Okay. Simple enough, but then I asked more questions.

On my way into the school that morning, I saw a street vendor selling something I had not seen before. With a holiday coming up, I figured there must be a connection. So I asked my students about the bundles of money I had seen for sale on the street corners.

It is fake, over-sized money in huge denominations.
They told me that the money is for burning. Burning. Not like we burn money in the States at Christmas by buying way more stuff than is needed, but actual burning. You buy this money and then you burn it. I had to ask why. A girl drew me this picture.

Money is burned for the dead to have a better after-life
Apparently, being dead is not much better than being alive if you don't have any money. I asked my students what a dead person would need money for and several of them shouted out "FOOD!"

I had never considered this. I know how much I love food and how much it really sucks to be hungry, but I didn't think that would be an issue after you kicked the bucket. Well, here it is. I have to do my best not to die in China.


As you can see from the video, we didn't get very far in the explanation department. I don't think any of us generally know what the other is talking about most of the time. However, I did see some of the burning of money happening that night.




And plenty of evidence of it the next day.


These burn spots were everywhere.
I'm not quite sure of the logistics of how this works or where you file your paperwork to be sure that the money you burn gets to the correct person in the afterlife and the children were of no help. They told me that the person you want the money to go to will get it. It just happens.

I continued to ask questions to try to understand this practice:

Can I burn money to go to more than one person?
Why don't the dead just get jobs so they have their own money?
Can I burn money for myself so it will be there waiting for me when I do die?
Is there crime in the afterlife?What if I burn money for my grandma, but another dead guy steals it?

Eventually, a boy raised his hand and said, "This is just Chinese tradition. It is not real. It is an ancient custom."

"Ah," I replied. "It's like Santa Claus. We leave out milk and cookies even though we know he isn't real. It's just tradition."

His jaw dropped open. "What?" was all he could say. Another kid wailed, "Santa's not real?" Half the class started crying.

I'll never understand China.

Friday, March 24, 2017

English Lessons

This week marks 6 months since Red and I arrived here in Beijing and most of the time we still feel like we have no idea what is going on around us, but we have a little bit of an idea more often than we used to.

Red has become a children's show host, sort of. She is the face being used for interactive English lessons. The children will have textbooks, worksheets and many books to be used with these lessons. Red is the star of the DVD portion of the program. She teaches the children and their parents English phrases and reads the books with them. She even has a little puppet sidekick. She's like Captain Kangaroo, minus the funny suit and sexual tension with all the guests

For myself, last month I signed a government contract to work in a school teaching English to third, fourth and fifth graders. As horrible as that may sound to many of you, please try to keep in mind that you are absolutely correct. Children are awful enough, but adding the element of not even being able to talk to them takes it to a whole new level. Plus, my average class size is just under 40 students. I see each class once a week and with 20 classes, I see over 700 students a week. And this is just at my first job. I have two others.

I have been offered a professorship at a very prestigious technology university on the other side of the city, but I am in a contract until December. Until then, I am just thankful that these hundreds of kids don't actually know any martial arts.

Since my students have very limited English abilities, I cannot teach the same way I would teach another subject in the States. Ninety percent of anything I have to say will not be understood, so I have to use other methods. I discovered on my second day that waterboarding is not considered to be an acceptable method in Beijing schools, so I have had to research some alternatives.

Government school students start receiving English instruction in the first grade. Which means by the time I see them in the third grade, they have two years of English behind them. However, they are not ready to effectively communicate yet. They can say, "Hello" and respond to "How are you?" with "I am fine. Thank you. And you?" but that is just about it. They have about a hundred English words floating around in their little brains, but don't yet know how to piece them together to create independent sentences to express thought. This is why I am working on grammar and sentence structure.

Since I do not speak Chinese, I have to show by example. This past week, I was trying to get the kids to use sentences explaining what someone was doing. To keep their attention, I use fun little pictures on the screen.



For the above picture, I want the kids to say "He is reading" or, to really be impressive, say "He is reading a book." After looking at the screen, some of my students dig though the recesses of their brains and pull a few words. BOOK! I hear almost immediately from a few eager students.

"Yes. Book. But what is he doing?"

I get blank stares from the five kids who are actually paying attention and not cutting up erasers or throwing wet paper at each other. I pantomime reading and eventually a kid bites. READ! READ BOOK!

"Yes, but full sentence" and I start to write He on the board under the sentences I already have up there.

They are running.
He is drinking.
She is eating.
He is falling.
They are watching TV.

The eager one decides to try again. TEACHER! TEACHER! HE READ BOOK!

So, I underline the -ing in the previous sentences as I had done for each instance before. I slowly start to say "Heeee...iiiiissss..."

Proudly, one of the kids jumps to his feet. HE IS READ BOOK!

I point to the -ing again.

HE IS BOOKING!

The rest of the class is being so loud I am fairly confident none of the students can hear me crying. I write He is reading on the board with the other sentences and pray that at least one kid will catch on to the pattern with the next one. I have the class repeat He is reading several times before showing the next picture.


As soon as this picture illuminates the screen, the class erupts with laughter and several kids cover their eyes. The many students who haven't been paying attention are being tapped by their friends to look at the screen. Every kid has a huge reaction and it is not the utterance of the sentence I want to hear. They are sleeping.  I find out later from a Chinese teacher that showing a picture of a man and woman in bed together to a bunch of grade school students is highly inappropriate.

OK. My bad, I guess. I'll never figure out China. Let's move onto the next picture and try to forget this one.


I was a little concerned with this one because I didn't know if they knew the word 'argue', but I knew they knew the word 'fight'. So, they could say "They are arguing" or "They are fighting". I would accept either one, but since no one had even come close to giving me a full sentence yet. It really wouldn't matter.

The picture got a few oohs and aahs while kids shook their fingers at each other and started mock fighting in Chinese, but no one attempted an English sentence. I did my best to quiet the class and asked, "What are they doing?"

A kid in the back of the class shouted in perfect English, "They are playing rock, paper, scissors!"

I'll take it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Star and Torch Competition

A couple of weeks ago, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream I didn't know I had. I got to be Simon Cowell in a televised Chinese talent competition. Well, I was probably more like Randy since I'm nicer than Simon, but whatever.

After several months of visa nightmares causing us to not have work, everything finally got worked out making it legal for us to work. However, by that time it was so close to the end of the school semester, we couldn't go back into the schools. So, our employer found ways to keep us busy. They signed me up to be a judge at an English language competition. All the information I had was "Pack a bag. You'll be there for a few days."

I have a Master's in Teaching English to non-native speakers, so it made sense that they would ask me to do this. I pictured a spelling bee-type atmosphere where kids would be quizzed on proper grammar, syntax and pronunciation. I could not have been more wrong.

First, I was picked up by a bus that had about 50 people on it already. OKAY? That threw my expectations off a bit. We then drove around Beijing picking up a few more people. Once we got on the road, it took about four hours to arrive at our destination.

Citic Guoan Grand Epoch City - Chaoyangmen Hotel
Alright! My idea of what this was took a few more hits. This doesn't look like the type of place where a common spelling bee would occur.

As soon as we got off the bus, teams of people from the hotel swarmed out and started identifying who the bus passengers were. A young Chinese man walked up to me and asked if I was Brett Minor. When I nodded my head, he immediately grabbed all my bags while a girl asked for my passport. In broken English, he asked me to follow him as the girl disappeared into the crowd.

He led me into the hotel and we walked through seemingly endless corridors until we came to my room. The door was already open and the girl who had taken my passport was standing inside. She explained that she had used my passport to check me into my room and promptly returned it along with my room key. As she left, she told me to report to the ballroom in one hour.

The hotel room was bigger than my entire apartment and I was really beginning to wonder what I had signed on for, but I was quickly learning that I would be well taken care of for the next several days.

After unpacking and relaxing for bit, I headed to the ballroom and was pleased to find other English-speaking judges were part of this also. They had judges from America, Canada, England, Ukraine, Albania, Samoa and Israel in addition to all the Chinese judges. This was no small competition.

We were all ushered into a meeting room where their expectations were explained to us. Over the course of the next few days, over 4,000 youth from all over China would be coming to compete. This event consisted of two parts. The primary purpose was to showcase their English speaking and comprehension. The second was to display a talent they had prepared. Our job was to judge them on their English ability as well as their talent.

Each judging panel consisted of seven judges.
  • Three English teachers from China
  • Two Chinese artists (actors, musicians, etc)
  • Two native English-speaking ESL teachers
 Because of the huge numbers of contestants entered in this event, it would be showcased in five different areas simultaneously. At this rate, it would still take four days to complete.

The following day, I was taken to my room to begin judging.

WOW! This place is huge!
This is not a small competition.
 Starting at 8 a.m., the contestants started showing us what they could do. We saw kids ranging from 5 to 16 years old and witnessed a variety of different kinds of acts. Some came out in groups and did short plays. Some recited poetry. I watched two eight year old kids do a scene from Hamlet. Many of them danced, but the majority of them sang. And since they knew this was an English competition, they often chose American songs.


This girl nailed the talent portion, but (as hard as it may be to believe) she could barely speak English. During the Q&A section, she had difficulty understanding the questions being asked.

As great as that performance was, for every spot like that one, there were dozens like this.


As cute as a lot of these kids were, it soon became apparent that they had limited knowledge of American songs. I heard the following songs several times:
  • Do Re Me (38 times) 
  • Justin Beiber songs (17 times)
  • Taylor Swift (13 times)
  • Lemon Tree (32 times)
  • You Raise Me Up (33 times)
  • Try Everything (27 times)
When it came to plays and dramas:
  • 23 different versions of Red Riding Hood
  • 26 versions of Three Little Pigs
  • 14 versions of Billy Goats Gruff
 Immediately after they showed us their talent, they would be given a screen to view whose contents were determined by their age.

Older kids got something like this.

Younger kids were given pictures.
And, yes, that's a kid holding dead dog.
The contestant would then have to say a few sentences or tell a short story using what was on the screen. This would showcase their ability to improvise independent speech rather than show us that they were good at memorizing words. They would then have to answer a couple of spoken questions asked by one of the judges. I was amazed at how many times a kid could get up and recite beautiful poetry with perfect pronunciation, but could then not actually be able to speak English. They were just memorized sounds.

Occasionally, a kid would just freeze or even start crying when we reached this portion of the competition. A child who was so confident a minute earlier doing their practiced routine didn't know what to do when faced with words he did not recognize. It was sometimes heartbreaking to watch.

 However, my favorite part was meeting all the kids and their parents. They were brought to us in waves. About 15 competitors at a time would enter the room and I would leave my chair to meet them all and try to calm their nerves before performing and I always jumped up as soon as a wave was finished to go congratulate them all. They had worked hard and been very brave to stand up in front of all of us.



Plus, with the TV cameras everywhere and the popularity of this competition, they saw us as celebrities. Even though I'm actually no one of importance, that was not how I was looked at by these kids. Taking the time to talk to them was very exciting. It was strange signing autographs for not only them, but their parents as well.

After hours, if any of us judges were spotted in a hallway, scores of people would surround us to get a little bit of our time. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us and get our WeChat (China's equivalent to Facebook) contact info. Late one evening, several of us were sitting around singing songs when a group of families walked through the room. Our private party was no longer private.


It was a fantastic experience. I made many new friends. Made a lot of great business contacts and was asked to come back and be a part of it next year. I can't wait.


Here is a collection of some of the other videos I took if you want to look at them.