A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Monday, December 27, 2004


Yesterday at about 15:40 local time I was sitting in my apartment working on a crossword puzzle from a book that I had gotten from Christmas when I noticed that the back of the sofa I was sitting on was tapping lightly the wall behind me. I noticed that the curtains were swinging slightly and realized that, well, yes, the building seemed to be shaking slightly. My first earthquake that I remember clearly. I thought I was probably just imagining it, but I logged the time and thought I'd ask others the next day. Then I got online.

As I normally do, I headed over to MSNBC and found this article More than 11,350 die as tidal waves sweep across Asia and realized that I was certainly not making things up. I couldn't believe it when I saw such a high number! What I had felt was only an aftershock (I was very passed out when the big one struck in the morning), and I was quite far away from the epicenter in the Indian Ocean, so I couldn't even begin to imagine the gravity of the situation. I can only send my condolences to the many many many thousands of families who have lost loved ones during this tragic event. I was planning on visiting some of these areas (mainly Thailand) next month, but I guess we'll see now. Maybe there will be sort of international relief efforts that we can help with. For now, I highly encourage all of you in this time of giving to help by donating funds to the Red Cross or to other organizations who are currently sending aid in that direction!

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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Results

Alright, well, me, being my clever sociologist self, did come up with a few ways to measure at least my results as a teacher. It’s not like teacher evals are a new thing (although they are to some of my Chinese colleagues, one of whom is going to take my idea), but at least being a sociologist I knew how to make my own and get some interesting results.

I only have information from my sophomores, but 75% of them said that overall they enjoyed my class, while nobody said they didn’t enjoy it (some were ambivalent, obviously). 90% said that I was a good teacher—a full 35% thought very much so—and again, there was nobody who thought I was a bad teacher. 70% found the class interesting, while 10% put it on the boring side of the spectrum (although nobody found it extremely boring). Just about 80% said that I explained things clearly and made them easy to understand, although I apparently talk too fast and have a weird accent (in high school they learned British English, although they all have American accents). Around 60% said that my class had helped them work towards English goals, and about the same said it had helped their English writing improve (it was an English Comp course).

So, I guess overall I’m happy with results like that. I think, though, that social research has probably got to be a bit different in China, and I’m afraid that even in anonymous surveys students might hesitate to say anything negative, even if they didn’t like the class at all, out of respect for the teacher. I’m going to venture that some of those who were supposedly “on the fence” about the class and my teaching were probably leaning more towards the negative side but didn’t dare say so. Also, there’s always the question of whether or not they understood the questions (they were in English). I used one of the sociologist tricks where you reverse the flow of responses so the person can’t just go down the list checking 5, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 5 without actually reading the questions, and I was able to catch one person doing that. But who knows how many I’ve missed.

And like any social research, the more open-ended questions are funny because they are often contradictory—which just proves you can’t please everyone. For some people the Portfolio Projects that I had them do were their least favorite part of the class. For many others though it was their favorite. The one consistent part of the class that seemed to be people’s favorite though was when I was howling like a dog to demonstrate what a howl was…in one of my classes I even got a dog from outside to howl back! It seemed like a cheap trick to get them to pay attention, but sometimes cheap tricks work!


Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Week to be Reckoned With

I sit here on the Sunday afternoon before my first round of finals emotionally drained. Not absolutely ecstatic, not exactly depressed, but pensive and in many ways fulfilled. A dichotomy, I realize, being simultaneously drained and fulfilled, but I find myself this way often—learning and growing just takes so much energy! But it’s that end state, the settled, sated, contented state that makes it all worth while. As I recently discovered while reading excerpts of Carl Phillips' Coin of the Realm, “departure, dislocation: these are two possible translations for the Greek ekstasis—from which our own word, ecstasy, is derived,” and I think that it might be apt.

Part of the reason I’m quite as emotionally drained as I am is because I just got finished reading River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. I cannot begin to describe how much this book resonated with me. It’s about a Peace Corps volunteer who spent his two year term north-east of where I am now in a small village in the SiChuan province called FuLing. Obviously, there are many things about our experiences that differ vastly, yet his stories and experiences resonated with me. From the frustrations (skirting the government regulations), to the things that always make me smile (a boy student named Rebecca), this book describes the Chinese experience in a way I can only hope to convey to you in my blog entries. Thus, I know it’s not exactly my story, but I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in what it’s like to be here teaching in China!

But beyond being dragged through the emotional spectrum by books, reality has been quite accommodating of late. In reflecting upon this past week, I cannot think of a single day where something interesting, exciting, or growth-inducing hasn’t happened (with perhaps the exception of Monday which was mainly dedicated to grading). Since this semester is coming to a close, and it is also the holiday season, I decided to throw holiday parties for my students. For my first years it was on Wednesday evening. For my sophomores it was Saturday evening. Most of my stories of this week revolve around these events.

On Tuesday it all began. After having a lively class with my sophomores and finishing writing their final exam, the afternoon was dedicated to party prep for the following day. That meant mainly shopping, and in order to get everything, I needed a helper. Thus, one of my freshman, Sean, came into town from the YangPu campus (which I’ll remind you is roughly 45 minutes outside of town) to help. He’s a native Kunmingois (Kunminger?) and shopping is, with perhaps the exception of singing karaoke, his favorite pastime, so it seemed like the right choice for helpers. Also his English is above par, which is always helpful. But actually, that was one of the best parts of the day—the fact that I was able to hold my own in Chinese with him. It finally made me feel like I belonged. Don’t get me wrong, we got a fair number of stares in the Carrefour, but that’s just a part of China. A foreigner speaking in Chinese, no matter how badly, draws a crowd wherever as usually the Chinese are expected to be speaking in English with the foreigner. The fitting in was more a result of finally really feeling like I could connect with an actual Chinese person as opposed to just other foreigners.

We spent over five hours shopping (granted some of that was transit time), and due to that my student missed the last bus back to campus. Luckily though, several of his friends, including another one of my students, Shakira :o), had driven into town (a big deal I might add, actually having a car) and were doing some shopping of their own. We met up for dinner, which we had at what can only be described as a Chinese food court. We grabbed little dishes from many different restaurants, and thus my meal consisted of something like: rice and milk paste (which is traditionally a baby food, but one that is becoming more and more popular among nostalgic teens as a snack), 烧烤(shaokao, Muslim barbequed kebabs that are really quite spicy. We had squid, zuchinni, lotus root, and some sort of fish), 饺子(jiaozi, or dumplings, which were absolutely delicious! I really am going to have to become a dumpling maker in my spare time or something so that I can keep eating them outside of China), a kiwi smoothie served in a bamboo cup (and complete with chunks of some other fruits and what can best be described as gummy worms), and the very traditional 猪脑 (pig brain which was surprisingly tender!).

It was a good meal, and I could figure out generally what they were talking about as long as they didn’t revert into Kunminghua (Kunming dialect). We had some good conversations, during we discovered that I was only one year older than Sean (well, I already knew that, but he thought I was much older). It was gratifying to know that the Chinese have as much trouble telling the age of 老外 laowais as we do telling their ages. And yet, after that discussion we were on our way out and decided to stop at a video arcade when one of them asked Sean “does he know what video games are?” I tried not to roll my eyes too much. The games in and of themselves were quite amusing, and I got my first try at playing a game where you were supposed to beat a big drum. My first reaction was something like “how is this fun again?” but it grew on me. All in all, it was one of my best nights in China so far! It was really my first time just chilling with Chinese, and I loved it. Of course, it got me into a bit of trouble for I didn’t get my grading finished. Then again, I think my students are getting used to that. I’m turning into a miniature Keith Farrington!!! :o)

The party itself was quite enjoyable. I made three pumpkin pies, two chocolate pies, and something that was in between ginger snaps and gingerbread people (basically it was gingerbread dough, but I didn’t have the time or patience to roll it out so I just scooped little balls onto the cookie sheet). The other grand culinary adventure of the evening was the mashed potatoes that I ended up making (although I had tried to beg out of it, they wouldn’t have any of it). Those we made at the YangPu campus, and they weren’t bad, although they weren’t spectacular either. I have my suspicions that my students were thinking something like “this is just like old grandma potatoes (a regional specialty) without the flavour.” The freshman, who are not allowed to get drunk on punishment of being expelled, put back a full two cases of beer which definitely got the party going. One of my favorite parts of the evening was teaching them “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” where I had exactly the right number of students to have one person sing the partridge part, two people for the turtle doves, three French hens, and so on. Also, I went there with another foreign teacher and we did a swing performance to “Jump, Jive and Wail.” We then had to teach them how to do it, and some of them weren’t bad. The funny part, and this is typical of Chinese, especially ones who just recently entered university, is that the girls danced with the girls and the boys with the boys. Too adorable!

Several events punctuated Thursday. One thing is that I’m almost positive that I found one of my towels from my childhood in the possession of the 服务员(fuwuyuan, maids). I’d like to get this corroborated by the ‘rents, but when I was little, I had a towel (or maybe it was my sister’s) that had a brontosaurus on it. I think that when I came here last time, and stayed in the exact same place, I must have brought the towel, and then left it here so that I could actually close my suitcase. So guys, do we still have that towel at home, or could it really be mine? The other two big events included the second meeting of the book club that several of our teachers started, which was interesting. The topic of the readings was travel, and thus we all had a lot to say. Afterwards, we attended a charity pub crawl (as if we needed an excuse to go drinking at our local pubs), which, needless to say, left me quite drunk and in the end I made a small scene, but by then it was already like 3:30 in the morning, so not many people noticed (and if they did they were totally drunk and it didn't matter). In any case, yay for no Friday classes!

Speaking of Friday, it was party time again, but this time it was one of the other foreign teachers that was holding it for her kids. I recall mentioning this before, but Chinese parties are a bit different than American (dare I say Western?) parties in that they need an emcee and require performances and organized games. I helped animate (to use the French term for it), which included a Sebillana (a type of Flamenco dance that I don’t think I spelled correctly) with the hostess, a swing with another friend, and the most rousing rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” we had this week. It was quite enjoyable, though I was exhausted in the end!

This didn’t exactly bode well for the party of the next day, which was actually for my students, but I was able to tough it out. I went shopping with different students (again at Carrefour, but a different one), and I treated them to McDo’s for lunch, which I think they enjoyed. I haven’t eaten there for reals since I had the shrimp wonton meal in Hong Kong, and before that I couldn’t actually tell you it’s been so long. I found a teriyaki chicken triangle wrap (do they have those in the US?) which was not too bad. The party itself was good, and I think my students enjoyed themselves, though not as many showed up as I had been expecting. It just really made me start thinking about the fact that this semester was coming to an end, and hoping beyond hope that I’ve actually touched these students in some way. That maybe they’ve actually learned something. We’ll see how the final goes.

After that it was out to the local pub to celebrate a Chinese friend’s birthday. From what I understand, before I arrived he kept asking for me and kept asking for me, and he was obviously elated when I did come. He’s a cute little student at the Minorities University down the street whose nickname is 小猴子XiaoHouzi, or little monkey. His girlfriend was there, and she had brought her mom along, which impressed me. He then got overly drunk and started throwing up, which was less impressive. But again, it just made me feel like I belonged here. That somebody was waiting for/expecting me was just a really nice feeling that gave me warm fuzzies. I was then taught a new Chinese drinking game called 7-8-9, which is the devil! It takes two dice, and if you roll a seven you can add as much alcohol to the communal cup as you want (note that in China this tends to be shots of beer as their drinking games go fast!), an eight means you have to drink half of whatever was in the cup(s), and a nine is the whole shebang. Of course, if you roll one of those numbers, you have to continue until you roll something else. I had a streak of like 4 8s and 9s in a row which got me sufficiently toasted and made me quit drinking for the rest of the night. And actually, after this weekend, methinks its time for a good long break from the drinking. Of course Christmas and New Years are not likely to elicit this kind of behavior.

So, three pages later and I’m even more drained. I guess that in the end, what’s important is that I made an impact on the lives of my students, and really feeling tied to this community. It begs the question, how do you even begin to measure that?

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Friday, December 17, 2004

The CCP and ME

Well, it’s been a good long while since I’ve posted anything to my blog, so it’s really about time. Although I’ve had a lot of really interesting experiences of the last couple of weeks, the problem is that I’m not sure that I can find a logical string to tie them together nicely with one exception. Thus, I first present you with one topic for discussion, followed by some vignettes of events that have taken place over the last few weeks (which I think will just be some future posts cause this turned out to be long enough already).

I would guess that doing things like this is exactly the kind of thing that that’s getting me in trouble, but recently I’ve started to actually feel the weight of the Chinese government on my head. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered a few problems with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) that made me realize that I’m maybe not as free as I had thought here, and that I probably have a file somewhere keeping track of me (although this has no basis in fact, it’s pure speculation).

My first major upset was when my new website, www.knezzy.com got censored. I’m not sure how targeted this is, for many of my host’s IPs are banned in China, but it REALLY pissed me off. Also, it’s not like there are a lot of pages that I find are actually censored here, so it felt like they were just picking on me! One of the main reasons that I moved over to the new website was that I was getting annoyed that the government blocked all access to blogspot pages, and I wanted to see my blog. I also wanted to work on my City Insights Project which I will use next semester with my students. This turned into only a minor annoyance, for I just had my hosting provider help me change IP addresses to a number under the block blocked by the Chinese government. So, right now I’m flying under the radar and am hoping to continue to be able to do so!

My other censoring incident happened on my final exam. This one was actually my fault—it was a kind-of-stupid-I-knew-I-shouldn’t-have-done-it-but-was-trying-to-push-the-limits-anyway kind of a thing. For my writing class, one of the writing questions on their final was “Write a paragraph arguing whether or not Taiwan should remain a part of China. Remember to use good logical order, and NOT to include any logical fallacies.” Yes, I had explained to them what logical fallacies were. I was thinking of wording the question as “Write a paragraph arguing why Taiwan should remain a part of China…” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Heck, I had a hard enough time phrasing it as a “remain part of China,” which is already somewhat of a leading question. I thought I could get away with it with that wording though.

I asked because I was truly interested to know why my students even cared about Taiwan and to see if they could come up with some good reasons. In class I had also used it quickly as an example of a persuasive paragraph that one could write, and inevitably when I asked for one supporting argument for it, the students all said “Well, historically it’s been part of China.” Later in class we started discussing logical fallacies. I presented them with the fallacy of “appeal to tradition” whereby one argues that something should be one way because that’s the way it’s always been. I managed to slip in there that their main argument for why Taiwan should remain part of China was thus a logical fallacy of the aforementioned type. I don’t think made them particularly happy, but no one said anything and I think it got them thinking. In the end, although my final passed inspection by another (Chinese) colleague and the head of the English department, the local Party Secretary said that question was too much of a hot topic right now to be included on my final exam and that I had to change it.

The changing is actually also a funny, typically Chinese, story. Because of their love of bureaucracy (it reminds me so much of France in that way), first I had to submit my final to the department for review. But beyond that, I actually had to submit two versions of my final, a and b. Apparently all teachers must submit two versions of their final exam papers, but it was kind of a shock for me. The way it was presented to me was something like: “Okay, so in the end you have to submit two versions of you exam, a and b. But don’t spend too much time on b because we never use it.” Of course, since they had to change my question, they were just going to fall back on the same writing question from paper b, but that was also about a governmental policy (forcing all students to learn English), so I decided to change it entirely to talking about famous movie stars which I’m sure they’ll like a lot.

I guess the moral of the story is that I need to learn when to sit down and shut up (which doesn’t come easily to me), but I guess that’s just a part of China that will take some getting used to!

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Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Thanksgiving Madness!


Well, I know this might be old news to those of you who have been checking out my photoblog (Fun Fotos for wHeNeVeR), but to those who were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find things to do for Thanksgiving here in Omaha, China (ok, Kunming, China but I think I’ve figured out the city in the US that is most comparable to Kunming: Omaha, Nebraska…or at least that’s my new theory), you may assuage your fears. I was actually able to celebrate it two nights in a row, which is probably actually more than those of you in the US can say—and it was generally sunny and mild on both days. Take that Mr. 9-inches-of-snow-in-Chicago-stuck-in-the-airport-for-hours-upon-hours!

On Thanksgiving Day itself it was off to another American friend’s apartment to celebrate. There were thirty odd people there (okay, only like 20 were odd, the other 10 or so were fairly normal—myself not included of course) which made for a good time although I don’t know that we would have fit had it not been for her huge balcony. But surprisingly enough, I digress. It was really quite a fun evening with Thanksgiving à la “Nueva Latina” (not that such a cuisine exists…except maybe in California). The hostess, who is actually from Cali, had her parents visiting for the week, and they helped out quite a bit. Her father quite enjoys cooking and recently came from a cooking class somewhere in the Yucatan Peninsula which meant that we had some wild stuffing. I really can’t complain—I think it was the first time I’ve eaten turkey in I think four years or so, and it was a wonderfully good way to start.

I, as I have wont to do, decided to go against the trend of “Latin” food and brought a HUGE plate of veggie sushi. I cannot begin to tell you how spectacular this plate of sushi was. It was really a work of art to the extent I don’t think I’ve managed in food preparation before (and that is saying somewhat a lot I think). One roll was actually three tiny rolls stuffed inside a bigger one. It looked a little bit like a panda I was told. That being the point, I was pleased. Now I realize that the Japanese are still much more jozu (or skilled) at the sushi making than I am, but it was definitely my best sushi effort to date. I also made a pumpkin pie as practice, for I said I would make some for the following evening as well and I hadn’t ever really made them myself. Not to mention the fact that I always screw up crusts. It actually turned out halfway decent, which I wasn’t expecting since I had burnt the pumpkin while boiling it (it’s a long story, and I blame it entirely upon Whoopi Goldberg). It was a bit heavy on the cloves (it was masking the burnt), but at least cloves don’t taste bad!

Besides the food, the party itself was also quite enjoyable. All the other English teachers from the compound were there as well as various other friends from around town. We talked, we danced, and of course, we shared what we were thankful for. By that point I was slightly inebriated which made for, well, an interesting speech.

T-day Numero Dos was celebrated at the brand-spanking-new apartment of my Chinese teacher and her husband. I’ve actually known this woman for quite some time as she was also my Chinese teacher at Whitman. Her husband, Hong Kongese by birth, has lived in the US (L.A. and Walla Walla) for the last thirty some years and just retired with his new wife to China at the beginning of this summer. Let me just say that retiring to China is a good plan—your money really goes a lot further here! Their apartment is super-posh and I was really excited to see it. It’s in the suburbs a bit, so it’s kind of far away, but it’s well worth the long bus or taxi ride. Their complex is brand new and simply astonishing. The apartment itself is a two-story penthouse with patio roof access. There is a view of another development with a wonderful fountain, garden, swimming pool (!), and tennis courts—most of which are rarities in China (it was actually the first pool I’d seen in the mainland). Originally a six bedroom apartment, it now (only) has four and is quite well decorated. The TV in the living room is actually a big screen projector that comes down from the ceiling!

The party itself was not bad. The guest list mainly included people from Yunnan University that were somehow associated with Whitman, two Whitties who came down from Beijing for the occasion, a family from Wazu (which they were happy to remind us is now officially called Washington State University), the husband’s son (who had his 50th birthday on Thanksgiving but actually looks 27) and some of his friends. The food was good (though more Chinese than the previous night) and best of all we had actual French wine. I won some hearts with some homemade biscuits (originally the Chinese planners of the event were not planning any bread type things so I had to step in), though my friend Aaliyah, who is another teacher here really deserves the credit for a great recipe. A Bordeaux to be specific. The craziest part was the desserts, for I had brought two pumpkin pies, the Whitties from Beijing had made 4 apple pies, AND the Chinese had bought a birthday cake. I really do think that I’m not going to be able to fit out the door the way these holidays are going!

Saturday the same group from the night before took a van the two hours out to visit the Stone Forest. It hasn’t changed much in the last two years (shock, surprise, amazement), but it was cool to see again. I’m sure though that it won’t be my last. Sunday I spent showing the parents of the Thursday night hostess around Kunming with another friend, which was actually quite enjoyable. I particularly liked watching them argue at the flower market. Made me miss home :o).

Anyway, this is a terribly long entry, so I shall end it here with a few fun facts (I mean, could I really start my new Fun Facts blog without them?). Once again, I wish you all a most wonderful Thanksgiving and a happy December (aaack! Time marches on!).

  • www.knezzy.com- The web address of my new website!

  • 2- The number of times that the carving of the words “Stone Forest” was carved into the rocks there after the first carving was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution…obviously it was much to offensive of propaganda for the Commie’s tastes.

  • 8 & 11- The story that each of the penthouse apartments were on. I’ll tell you what though, 8 flights is a lot to climb, especially when you’re carrying 25kilos (about 50 lbs) of coal. Don’t ask.

  • 1936- The year there was a great earthquake at the Stone Forest that made several stones fall down. One is now wedged precariously in between two stones making a somewhat dangerous arch. Legend has it that as long as you haven’t committed any sins recently it wont fall on you as you’re walking underneath.

  • 16- The number of yuan (about $2) it cost for me to by Windows XP Professional SP2, Microsoft Office XP SP3, Microsoft SQL, Adobe Illustrator CS11, and Adobe Photoshop CS8.01 at my local DVD store. Of course they’re in Chinese, but these countries wonder why their not making any money here…

  • PS: Look closer at that Mao print (originally done by Andy Warhol of course). :o)

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