Monday, December 28, 2009

I'm Still Not Very Good with PowerPoint

Last year I pretty much only taught one type of class. Yes, I had the Coventry classes but they were really just another version of oral English. This term most of my classes were very different. I was asked to teach "The Society and Culture of Major English Speaking Countries." I believe the school has offered this class for some time, Amy taught it last year, but before Amy I think that most people who taught it made it pretty similar to an oral English class. I wanted to do something pretty different with this class also so I decided to focus on just one or two countries, the book goes over way to many to cover in just one semester. Most of my classes were pretty short since we missed a couple of weeks for the pig flu, more on that in another post, but I still got in some interesting things. Teaching this class was a lot more work than the classes I taught last year since I had to lecture for most of the class rather than have the students speak. At first my plan was to lecture for about half the class and then do activities relating to the lecture for the other half but I just wasn't covering enough so I moved to a more interactive method where I would lecture but stop a lot to ask the students questions.

For example if I was lecturing about early America I would ask the students to try to think up some reasons people might have left Europe for America. I started with America, in fact some classes were so short that I really only covered America, and then moved on to the UK. For America especially the history was no problem for me I've taken American history courses so many times over the years that I know it with my eyes closed. The problem was that I wanted to make the history interesting. I find things like the American Revolution and American government very interesting but it was hard to find ways to convey that interest to the students so I wouldn't just be up there spouting off names and dates at them. I think my class was in some ways uneven. It took me a while to find a type of lecturing I wanted and it took a lot of work to come up with an outline and a PowerPoint for every class. For some things I think there is a lot of room in improvement in what I did to make it more interesting and more engaging. Some lectures I did I liked a lot though. The one I mentioned previously on American foreign policy was fun since it included talking about how the students felt about America. Another good lecture was on British history when I did sort of a soap opera version of Henry VIII.

The Henry VIII idea, for those who don't know he was the king of England who split for the Catholic Church and had six wives, was actually a lecture my old debate coach Mrs. Anderson used to do every year in her class. I never actually took the class but the idea of doing it as a soap opera worked very well. I think if I had to do the American Revolution again I would focus more on individual stories and what not to make it feel more real. I also did several quizzes and a final which was pretty different than last year. In a place where even the school sometimes encourages cheating I had them sit far apart and I walked around making absolutely sure no one was cheating. I hope the students didn't get too much of the wrong impression from this but at least I was confident that I was getting honest work. Teaching the class was actually a lot of fun just because it was something different from what I did last year. I'd actually like to teach it again next semester if I get the chance just to put some of the ideas I had in the middle of the semester into action.

I used PowerPoint during most of the lectures even though I think I'm the only person left in the world who's not very good with it. I unlike pretty much everyone else never had to use it much, or really at all, during college since I was an English major and most of my work consisted of writing papers. What I decided to do with PowerPoint was not to put the whole lecture notes up on it since I think it just encourages people to write them down and then not pay attention. Instead I put up only pictures or in one or two cases diagram to illustrate my point. If I was talking about congress there might be a picture of the capitol building, or if I was talking about George Washington maybe a picture of him crossing the Delaware.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

I Can't Understand the Words Coming Out of Your Mouth

"I can't understand the words coming out of your mouth." Says Chris Tucker to Jackie Chan in the comedy action movie Rush Hour, but I find myself in the same situation a lot. Today for instance I had to go to the train station to get tickets for Shanghai, I need to go there this week to get my Visa for India. I hailed a cab near the school and said train station in Chinese. Now train station in Chinese or Huǒ Chē Zhàn is not a very hard word. It's only three characters long and doesn't involve any of the really weird sounds that Chinese sometimes uses. But for some reason no one seems to understand me when I say it. I even know the tones for this one, but for some reason the taxi driver was just totally befuddled by sounds I was making. I eventually got someone to text me the characters but by that time a second taxi driver did understand me. This isn't the first time I've had trouble with this word either. I think there must be some difference between how I'm saying it and how it should be said that I have a hard time hearing. That's one of the more annoying difficulties in learning Chinese besides not being really able to make some sounds I can't even hear the difference between some. Oh well, I guess I'll have to learn how to write it 火车站 doesn't look too hard.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Presents both Big and Small

Christmas season is a time when people give a lot of gifts and I've received my fair share even over in China. My parents and my grandparents sent me packages with some nice stuff including a really funny Onion book from my parents and a Yankee world championship t-shirt from my grandparents. Last night on Christmas day we did a big white elephant gift exchange with all the foreign teachers as well as a bunch of Chinese friends. A white elephant gift exchange seems to basically involve everyone buying some odd gift and then swapping them around a lot. I bought a pair of Christmas colored lightsabers that Steve ended up with. I ended up with an odd 1000 piece Japanese puzzle that Ken bought. Some of the most popular gifts were a mug with the symbol for the Shanghai expo on it, the rip off of Gumby, and a belt and wallet with the Playboy logo on them, though again I'm sure Playboy isn't seeing any money on this. Besides these gifts Sarah's parents sent all the teachers here stockings with some candy and some home made games in them. I want to extend a special shout out to David and Deb for there really thoughtful gift and the nice Yahtzee game I got. The holiday season is still going here though as we have a New Years banquet next Thursday on the 31st.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Toast to Prince Charles

We had the Christmas banquet last night and once again it was a lot of fun. The president of the University came again, it was a new president this year because the old one retired/was forced out. There is also an end of the year banquet for the whole foreign language department, but that will be next week. This banquet was just for the English and German teachers and was held in the hotel I live in. The food was good, at all the banquets I've been too the food is pretty consistent so even though there are always a few new things I know what to expect. I'm not going to go into a whole description of Chinese drinking habits again but suffice it to say there was a lot of toasting. The new president and Peter, Teddy's boss not the one who lives across the hall from me, were quite into a machismo see how much you can drink sort of thing. At first it was the Americans drinking bottles of beer against them drinking very full cups of wine. But at one point when I was having trouble downing a whole beer in one swig I joked to Peter about when they were going to bring out the Baijiu. Well that was all it took for the president to start ordering up some really expensive bottles of Baijiu.

Ken in his apartment has a gallon drum of the cheapest of the cheap Baijiu which went for about 30 RMB for the whole things. These little bottles they brought out at the banquet cost I believe 600 and 700 RMB respectively. The more expensive one was called Maotai and has a Wikipedia page if you click on the blue hyperlink. Peter even noted to me that he would never have been able to order these bottles if his boss wasn't there. Now I can say that this stuff is definitly better than the gallon drum of Baijiu but it's not much better, and it's not 100 times, which is about the cost difference, better. The drinking was kicked up another notch then and people were making toasts to all kinds of odd stuff including Peter who at one point compared Sean to Prince Charles, in a good way I think, and then did a toast to that. They also gave us some gifts like last year, but this year for some reason they decided to give us a fancy box with apples in it. I think some one may have been under the impression that apples are somehow connected to Christmas but it's good since I was out of apples anyways. After the banquet was over we all met up back at Ken's place and Ken and Sean whipped up some Hot Buttered Rum which we drank while we went out to do caroling. We didn't have quite as much time this year but we his up a lot of places and the student reaction was still great. Caroling in China has to be one of my favorite things I've ever done.

I was pretty hung over during the night and I woke up a few times feeling pretty sick from drinking and eating that much but each time I woke up I drank some more water so when I actually got up a little after noon today I felt pretty good and not hung over at all. Today was Christmas eve my time which can be hard for missing being with family back in the states but seeing all the students cheers me up some. As I was walking back from class I saw some students hanging out a few asked me if I was doing anything on Christmas eve, but since I don't go to church I'm not sure what I would be doing. One group started chattering a lot as I walked past then one girl ran up to me and gave me a milk tea, which is kind of a combination of hot chocolate and green tea, another gave me a balloon a few minutes later. In both cases I thanked them and wished them a merry Christmas in Chinese, but that was about as much as I could say. Now maybe they gave me this because they know it's Christmas and they know that on Christmas people give gifts so they thought it would be fun to give some little token to a foreigner, but I've had people give me stuff in the middle of the summer also so I think I'll just attribute it to my dashing good looks. Merry Christmas China, and merry Christmas to everyone in America too.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The American Empire

This year I've been teaching a class on Western society, which is pretty much just a class on the US and the UK, but more on that later, and during one class I talked about US foreign relations and policy. At the end of the class I posed the question to my students, "Do you think America is an empire." It can be hard to get a real answer out of students for a couple of reasons. The average Chinese person tends to be pretty nationalistic and quick to take offense at any slight to their county and I think they imagine that I am the same way. I try to tell my students that I don't mind them saying negative things about America, in fact some times I pose questions in just such a way as to get negative responses, but I don't know if they listen. Also classes tend to take one opinion and hold to it. It's partially a truism that with any group of people one person is not inclined to speak up against the consensus but it's more so in China where going along with the group is considered a virtue the same way individualism is in America and on issues where they've never discussed or come to consensus the first person to speak tends to carry the class. So when I asked them if they thought America was an empire each class tended to give one response.

Some classes said no comparing it to places like the British Empire which conquered a fourth of the word. Some also said no as they thought that the word empire had inherently negative connotations, which is more true in a country like China were the government will constantly remind people of their weakness during the war with the British Empire called the Opium War. Some classes said yes though. Actually truth be told I had more or less set up the class to come to an answer of yes. I had talked about the size of the American economy which is not only the largest in the world by a large margin but if you discount city states and countries with tiny populations the US has essentially the highest per person wealth in the world as well. I talked about American military spending which is almost equal to that of every other country in the world combined and some seven or eight times larger than China's spending, which is second highest in the world. And finally I talked about American culture how many of them had seen American movie to TV shows, how many knew American songs, and played American games. I compared this to other countries with large economies who they knew almost nothing about.

Some classes at the end asked me what I thought. I've thought for a while that America is an empire though one more based on culture than conquest. One of the things which it's really only possible to see form outside the US is the extent to which American culture effects all the others. Almost every aspect of Chinese culture is somehow touched by American culture. Being in China makes this easier to believe as well. In China everything American is regarded as important and interesting. I taught a class on the west with no better qualifications than being from there. And the number of jobs open just because I can speak English is enormous. For every time I feel like a monkey just brought around to entertain people there are a dozen times I feel like a diplomat given statues just because of where I'm from. American may be and empire or not, in the end it probably doesn't really matter what you call it so much as what it is, but in China just being from America makes you important which is a truly odd feeling.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Mike Mulligan Comes to China

China always has a lot of construction going on and Changzhou right in the heart of one of the richest parts has even more. At one point something like half the worlds cranes were in China which isn't so hard to believe if you spend any time here. The school itself has been undergoing a huge amount of work primarily focused on the construction of a new library right in the center of the campus. Well the library is done now, more on that in another post, but there is still a lot of construction going on. Most of it has moved off campus, barley, with the work centering around the road right in front of the school. The road in front of the school was at some point in the past a big highway through Changzhou, but with bigger and better roads being built constantly it was soon dwarfed by almost every road in the city. It fell into disuse and disrepair, driving down it at night was a harrowing ordeal as it was almost completely unlit. But starting at the end of the last school year they started to carve the whole thing up to build some brand new six lane road in its place. That work has been going on for some time now, and for reasons that never really made a lot of sense disrupting the water supply to the school constantly.

The hotel's water has been better, which is good since I get really grumpy when I can't take a shower in the morning, but that's probably just because they bribed the right people. The road looks like it's finally well on it's way as they've paved part of it and look like they are smoothing out the part in front of the school to actually start paving soon. People always talk about the pollution in China, and while it is mighty a lot of what I really feel on a day to day level is just dirt kicked up by the constant construction. My dad's comment on all the pollution in China was that he was no longer worried about global warming since China would suffocate itself to death before that ever became an issue.

Friday, December 18, 2009

It Does Have a Weird Name Though

When I was back in America I decided to buy a Kindle after seeing Dave have one last year. For those who don’t know the Kindle is a type of electronic book reader. I can buy books from Amazon and then download them onto this device so I can have a bunch of books with me without having to carry them around. At first when I heard of this device I didn’t see why it was really worth while. They’re not cheap, a new second generation one coast about $300, and they really don’t do anything besides read books. But when I was in Vietnam with Dave and Ken I really saw the advantages of one. Dave just carried around one little computer while about half the weight in my backpack came form books. On top of that there were other advantages. It was actually hard to get many books in China. Changzhou basically doesn’t sell English language books and even in the places in Shanghai that do they only have a limited selection. Amazon will ship books to China but it tends to be pretty expensive. Also a bunch of books, including a lot of the interesting ones are banned in China and thus much harder to get.

The Kindle gets around all these problems easily since I can just download books form the internet. Also new books are cheaper on the Kindle. Most books only cost about $10, which can be half of a new hardcover book. Reading books on the kindle also isn’t like reading them on a computer. Your eyes start to get tired on a computer after a while since the light being sent from the screen is being interfered with from all the other light around. A computer screen is also constantly refreshing or redrawing it’s self tens of times a second this creates some flicker even if it’s hard to notice when just looking at a screen normally. The Kindle works differently it basically can be thought of as a really advanced Ech-a-Sketch. The Kindle draws the words on the page but then it just holds them there not refreshing the page until you go to a new one. The kindle also doesn’t give off any light you need another light source to read it like a book. In the end this makes reading off a kindle much more like reading a book than a computer. The Kindle does have some other problems though, the technology is still coming along so the type doesn’t have as much contrast as the black words on white paper that are in books. There also can be some glare if a light is directly on it. The biggest worry is also that it can break. Dave actually broke his at the end of last year when he accidentally put his elbow through the screen while on a train. I’ve been using mine a lot since I got back to China and I really like it. I doubt I would have gotten it if I just lived in the US but for traveling it’s been great.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The World as it Should Be

Though it's been over for a while now I spent a lot of time this semester getting up really early, something I despise with the fire of a thousand suns, to listen to the Yankees in the playoffs. I'd listen to some games during the regular season but unless they were on at convenient times or were important games it was hard to get up to listen to them. Baseball is really the only sport I follow anymore since it is the easiest to keep up with no matter where I go. Football may have done a better job of getting caught up with the TV era with all the clips and highlights they like to put together but baseball is really the first sport to get on the internet. For only about $15 I can listen to a streaming radio presentation of the games complete with endless Bloomberg commercials and announcers who think the Yankees can never make a mistake. It's nice to hear something a normal and America as a baseball game while I'm over in China and it's even nicer to see the Yankees win again. It just seems like something not right with the world when the Yanks can't win. But this season everything finally came together in the right way. The pitching was spectacular lead by two of the best free agent signings the Yankees had in many years. In fact this is the first time I can remember when the Yankees signed three big name free agents and they all worked out well. Yankee history is lined with famous busts lead by one second baseman who went from Golden Glove winner to unable to field as soon as he put on the pin stripes. There was a list somewhere of the 20 worst free agents signings in baseball history apparently the top 10 spots all belonged to the Yankees. But the Yankees won and all is right in the world again.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Daniel Son of Robert

I've been filling out forms to get a visa for India today with Ken and I can't get over how much I hate it when countries don't just offer on arrival visas. Ken pointed out that that means that I hate the US, but it is part of the reason we have so many stupid forms and extra fees is that the US imposes these sort of restrictions on other countries. On the other hand we are good tourists spending are money all over the place so maybe some of these countries could do a little more to let us in. Countries in the region which we helped out a lot like South Korea of Taiwan don't even require a visa and the same goes for places we beat like Japan. Thailand is just a laid back place and they essentially do on arrival visas too. For those who don't know I'm going to Thailand and then to India this winter as I have ten weeks off beginning Christmas day. We are going to have a Christmas banquet some time next week and we will probably do some caroling after that. We also are talking about do some sort of joke gift exchange, the goyim here use the term "White Elephant," though I've never heard it before. When I was filling out the forms for India though on all the forms was a place where I had to either list my father's or my husbands name. Ken's comment was that it was pretty patriarchal, I thought it was more Medieval going back to a time when people were known by a given name then as the son of so and so. So while I'm in India I don't want to be know as Daniel Davis, I want to be Daniel son of Robert. Sounds more biblical or something. The India forms also asked us for an itinerary, which is funny since we don't have any plans more than the fact that we are flying into and out of Delhi. I was looking through the Lonely Planet India book and it has so many cool pictures off places there that I think we might want to just go to all the places pictured in the book. I told Ken that I don't care what we see as long as at some point during our time there I get to ride on top of a train, that's really my only goal for India.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A line in the TV show Scrubs goes something like "I only know one thing for certain, that if they took all the pron off the internet there would be only one website left and it would be called" Well here in China the people in government must have finally totally lost their minds because they are trying to take porn off the internet. I'd say this was like trying to take slat out of water but it's more like trying to take all the salt out of the ocean. I don't care how many spoons you have it can't be done. Porn is not only everywhere it's a huge business in the US alone it grosses billions a year. China's newest attempt to take porn off the internet involves trying to get people to do it for them. The government offered a reward of 10,000 RMB, which is almost 2.5 times my already pretty high monthly salary, for the first person to bring them the address of a website showing porn that is viewable in China. In the first day they received more than 13,000 submissions. You can crack down on free speech, you can block social networking sites and blogs, but sometimes I think the internet is just mostly porn. 13,000 websites might seem like a lot but I bet there were 13,000 new websites with porn created the day after. All I know for certain is that if they do take all the porn off the internet I'm only going to be able to see one website in China and it's going to be called

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

P * I * M * P

Some of you may know a certain former student here in Changzhou and reader of this blog who goes by the English name of Sophia. Well the other night before I went over to Shanghai and Nanjing for a quick trip I went out to dinner with Sophia another Chinese friend of hers and most of the foreign English teachers. On the way there Sophia recounted a story that is just too good not to post, and with her permission here is what she told me. Sophia works for a company that manufactures and exports stuff to the US and other western countries, which could be a description of about every business in this country. Her company sometimes hosts clients from the countries they sell too. The usual way to entertain business people in China is to take them to KTVs. KTV's which I've mentioned a few times previously are sort of like Karaoke places in the US expect that you sort of get a private room for your party and the whole thing is a lot more tacky, if you are having trouble imagining something more tacky than a Karaoke place in the US believe me it can be done. These places range from what are essentially brothels with singing, to more upscale places, where the hookers are probably on another floor.

The particular place where Sophia and her boss brought their foreign client on this night was on the seedier end of the range so the prostitutes were hanging out with the foreign client looking for some work. Now of course this isn't exactly how Sophia described it to me. She used a lot of words like, "women who will preform special services" in the typically Chinese modest way. Well towards the end of the night when things were wrapping up at the KTV the moment of truth came between this lady of the evening and the foreign client. The problem was the the client spoke no Chinese and the courtesan spoke no English. So the task fell to Sophia to translate between them and ask the client if he wanted to go home with this call girl. In the end it all worked out fine but Sophia described it as a disaster, more a reference to her embarrassment than anything bad happening I think. I just think it's a great story and made a lot of fun of her for being a pimp, or maybe Madam would be more appropriate. I'm sure she'd appreciate it if someone would send her a nice purple velvet pimp hat from the US.

What's less funny is the story she told me about being harassed by the one of the higher ups in her company, her bosses partner I think. She said he basically just straight out propositioned her and even grabbed her hand at one point. She was only thankful that this wasn't some one she had to work with on a regular basis. These sort of stories are still pretty shocking even though I know that things which would get some one sued for sexual harassment in the US are considered pretty normal here. Every time I here people complain about how litigious people are in the US I am reminded about all the good uses lawsuits have. From what I've heard and read it seems like have at least one mistress and generally behaving in a lecherous way is required behavior for Chinese business men. For more senior people having a bad comb over yellow teeth and a foreign car also seem to be part of the uniform. Well maybe Sophia can learn the pimp slap to deal with these miscreants, remember it's back of the hand across the face.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is the Opposite of Forbidden Crowded?

The Forbidden City which these days is just incredibly crowded was next on our list of things after seeing Mao, or the best wax version of him. The Forbidden City was once the palace at the center of ancient China. Actually it wasn't that old compared to some of the other palace sights but there aren't nearly as many old buildings as you would think in China due to the fact that most of them were built out of wood and thus burned down, usually more than once, over the course of the centuries. The Forbidden City was big though the main arch for entering the city alone was impressively gigantic. The architecture was very similar to the palace in Korea but at about five times the size. Actually the one in Korea sort of looks like the miniature model version of the huge Forbidden City. The buildings one after another used to house all sorts of royal offices and things having to do with ancient China. Oddly maybe the most famous view of the Forbidden City today is the entrance with Mao picture on it, which in a fitting metaphor for all China was under construction. What was really amazing about it all though were just the sheer number of people there. My dad noted that it was better than he remembered as they must have cleared out all the beggars.

Every time some mentions clearing people out, and in China that's mentioned more than occasionally, I can only think of the scene in the Princess Bride where the authorities are clearing all the criminals out of the forest before the big wedding. There weren't really beggars there but there were a ton of people outside the main entrance offering their services as guides. We already had a guide, who took us to the Great Wall also recommended to us by some people at the Beijing Wall Street Journal office. There were a bunch of facts about what different rooms were used for a what not but honestly I don't really remember much of it. What I do remember was there was one point where the crowd of people trying to see some throne or what not was so intense that I basically got elbowed until I bruised just trying to get near the front and then found there wasn't really anything particularly worth seeing. The best part there was that some of the rooms were air conditioned which was a nice break from the crowds and the heat. After seeing the Forbidden City we saw a few other big sights around Beijing including a big drum tower that was nice enough, but it was only later I remembered that it was the spot where some crazy person attacked people just before the Olympics began. We also saw a few of the remaining old village sections of the city which used to be so famous but have mostly been torn down.