Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Phoenix Garden Restaurant

First thing... I didn't go to Tianjin. Not a change of heart, but sleep got the better of me and I slept in til around 10 or 10:30 yesterday, which made it a bit late to get ready and go. I would not have gotten to Tianjin until 1pm, and only having 4 hours was not what I had in mind. So I'll go to Tianjin and Panshan (a little mountain with paths and some temples 120 kms north of Tianjin) in two weeks, after the last week of insano Winter period.

The supper for my TB 3As did, however, go ahead as planned. Only 4 of the 7 showed. We weren't able to get through to two, and one couldn't make it, which was too bad. We still had a pretty good time.

First we tried to go to Xinhua restaurant, which is a revolving restaurant near the school. No luck... they were only accepting people with reservations. This was a good thing, though. We divided and in two cabs headed to a great place called Feng Huang Yuan (Phoenix Garden something), a really nice restaurant near where Alistair and I live. That worked out perfectly. While they were busy, there were still a few empty tables.

One thing that really threw the students off was Lily's presence. Betty was my assistant for the kids when they were TB 2B and the students knew her well, but she said she'd be out of town all this week and when the supper idea had originally been floated wouldn't be able to make it. I invited Lily with whom I get along really well, wanting to have someone else to talk to and to translate if/when needed. It was awesome having her there, but the girls were a little weird about it. As soon as she showed up outside the school, they pulled away from where we (them and I) had been standing and closed off in their own circle. They warmed a bit once we got to the restaurant, but there was clearly something odd about the whole thing for a while. I don't want to jump to the conclusion that there was some territoriality going on, but hey... they're 12 year old girls.

Anyhoo... we had a good meal, and talked for a bit. It was great for the girls since being able to socialize outside of school is generally bu ke nan (impossible) since they're so busy 99% of the time. They had fun, and I chatted with Lily, mostly. Most of my attempts to start conversations with my students met with short replies and awkwardness. I think the change of environment was jarring for them, and I don't think they really expected me to go through with taking them for supper. A lot of things here are said but never done. We had gong bao ji ding (which made them laugh as they know that I love it), an awesome eggplant dish (best dish in Tangshan, I think), a spicy seafood congee (I think?), green beans with duck egg batter, chicken wings (which surprised me) and egg/seafood 'cake'. The egg was steamed and somewhat custard-like, with seafood on top. It was quite good. I was worried the sloppy texture would deter me. I've been wary of sloppy foods since the chilled tofu, chives and ant-sized prawns dish I had a few months ago... it was just nasty. Like slurping curdled milk with dead insects in it for crunch value.

Headed back to ke ji guan (the museum) and waited for the kids to be picked up, then with Lily walked Jenny back home, then headed home myself. It was a nice night and good to get out. Prior to supper, I also managed to do some planning/organizing for this weekend. When I left work last Friday, I had just dumped everything so my desk looked like a whirlwind of materials, baskets, worksheets and coursebooks. It's somewhat sorted now. I really don't feel like returning to work this weekend, though. I've been in braindead mode for what feels like forever, and have been thoroughly enjoying this wondrous respite. But all good things come to an end... bring on the kidlets. March and the end of my contract is right around the corner.

Oh, two of the girls each gave me a present, which was really sweet. One was a book of Chinese paper-cut (cutting?) which I don't fully understand. It's a 1500-year-old art form... kind of like silhouetting. Ah, here's a link. The other was a glass decoration, which looks cool but would likely be better suited for a young girl. It has a flower bow on the bottle part, and these paper stars inside it with lots of glittery... stuff. Very nice of them, anyway.

On another note... I've lost even more weight, it seems. I'm down to 72 kgs (158 lbs)... with clothes and jacket on. I need a new hole or two punched in my belt. This is getting a little ridiculous and I'm wondering if I haven't picked up some sort of symbiotic parasite that is sharing my intake of sustenance. And I'm not even gleaning any super powers from it. What a gyp.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Room to Breathe

Made it through the week. This afternoon was a bit brutal, but I wrote 'Topics' on the board before going for an early 10-minute break. Just said "Anything you want to talk about, write on here. If you don't write anything, you're stuck with my ideas." They put a few things, so we discussed those for the next two hours, and that worked well. Just glad it's over. Played hacky-sack with Lily and little Angel for an hour and a half afterwards to wind down. Now seven days of zero obligation to look forward to.

Found a really cool artist - Dave Allsop - purely by fluke. (image on the left is one of his) Check 'em out if you're into twisted and interesting works. I like his characters page. Reminds me of a perversion of the stuff 'Labyrinth' concept designer Brian Froud did. (Be wary of the "Dark Stuff" link in there... it truly is a pageant of the grotesque and warped, which can be good or bad depending on your preferences...)

I've got some pictures from Thursday night's mixed classes activity up on Flickr. The students had a decent time. It was a combination of the Conversation B and C classes, plus my EF 5s. About 26 of them total. We played an international trade game, and they had a blast using the negotiation language we'd (myself and Andrew) had taught them earlier this week. I hosted it, and Andrew and Michelle played the traders.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beijing Meet-Up

Had a good time in Beijing on Sunday night. It was a relief to get out of Tangshan for a few hours. I was a little late finishing up at the school, but had my bag and such with me, so getting to the train station wasn't a drawn-out affair. Getting a taxi, though, was tough. I got onto the second-to-last bus, which was full, but that was a positive: it left within two minutes. I sat on what I can only describe as a flight attendant's seat. It came out from part of the partition behind the driver, so I was sitting in the aisle. I spent the 1h40m trip floating between sleep and craning my head upwards to watch The Island in Chinese, and trying to keep my arse from atrophying.

Got to Beijing without issue, and likewise checked into the Central Beijing Youth Hostel near the south train station. The weather was fantastic, and the air was pretty clear and cool, but not chilly. Almost no wind. I got in earlier than I'd expected, gave Jon a shout from my room, then started walking. Had I been smart, I'd have taken the subway to Wangfujing, then walked, but I didn't think that the hotel would be north of the pedestrian section of that street. Wo san bu gua. (I went for a stroll.) It took about 35 minutes, but it was quite nice. Met up with Jon at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and we caught a cab to Houhai.

Houhai is kind of a hutong surrounding a lake - old alleyways with quiet bars and stores. I found it a lot more relaxed and comfortable than Sanlitun district. It seemed almost detached, in a way. It's its own little niche in Beijing. Alistair had recommended the Lotus Blue, so we wandered along the lakeside promenade to find it. Most of the bars, being on the left (west) of the promenade had booths and such right up against the waterside. While it wasn't cold, it certainly wasn't warm, so we stuck with the indoors. Found the Lotus Blue no problem, after a few people bugging us about "lady bars". The Lotus Blue was quite busy, but we took a high table, then switched to a more comfortable spot within a pretty short time.

Had a great time just relaxing and chatting with Jon. We got along quite well, I'd say. We talked about our respective works, China, Australia, books, movies, culture, language... lots o' stuff. There was a live band while we were there and they were playing Chinese fusion - a bit of a mixture of traditional Chinese music with modern sound. It was a nice backdrop for beer and conversation. I found it very easy to disassociate myself with that week of teaching, and put emotional distance between myself and this week, which was just what I needed. An eye of the storm, per se.

We got there around 10pm and stayed til 1:30am. By the time we left, everyone else had gone home, including half the bar staff. On the way out, we also got re-pestered by the "lady bar" peddlers. Got back to the hostel without issue, though the damn taxi-driver charged us for Jon's trip and then charged me for what he saw as a separate trip. Meh... whatever. We didn't spend much, really, and I was too tired and inept in Chinese to put up much of an argument. I asked why, swore mildly, contemplated calling him a bitch, and settled for just grunting and waving my indifference.

I managed a few hours' sleep, woke up late at 10:10am, raced to check out and meet up with Jon in front of the Wangfujing Bookstore. I was 15 minutes' late. He'd been up and about since 8, wanting to see Mao's Mausoleum (not open on Mondays, we found out) and the Foreign Legation. So he had a chance to see a few things that day, at least. We checked out the bookstore. I grabbed a book on writing Chinese characters, a little book of Chinese proverbs ("100 Pearls of Chinese Wisdom"), and a lesson book. We then looked around in the DVD/music store next door, and I suggested "A World Without Thieves" and "The Banquet" which he got, and I grabbed "Police Story" (Jackie Chan) and Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury".

Unfortunately, we ran out of time for lunch, so Jon went his way, and I headed for the train station to catch the Tangshan bus. Saw this ad on the subway platform and had to take a picture. Had no problems finding the bus and the ticket guy, and slept most of the way back to Tangshan. It was a nice "weekend", and it provided a much-needed rest.

Next week, I'm taking my TB 3A class for supper (confirmed) and heading to Tianjin. I've decided to say screw it in regards to going to Shanhaiguan. I'll take my camera for the supper, and Tianjin, so will have more photos to upload. I've been pretty lax with that lately.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Tangshan Explodes

Yup... Tangshan sounds like a warzone, and has since last night: AK-47s and mortar rounds. Today is like Christmas Eve here - a prelude to Spring Festival which is 18th of Feb. The sheer volume and number of rockets and firecrackers going off have car alarms screeching and blaring incessantly all over, at all times of the day/night. Am I ever looking forward to trying to sleep tonight.

Tomorrow night, I'm off to Beijing to meet Jon, a friend of Steve's. Should be fun. We're hooking up at 9:30pm, then heading to Dian'men street to check out a place called the Blue Lotus. I have it on good authority that it's a good place to grab a drink. The next morning, I'll then wander a bit and grab a DVD or two that I can't get here, and possibly some music. Might attempt to find another Chinese lesson book, but finding one is a pain in the arse. Oh, I definitely want to get Hong Lou Meng ("A Dream of Red Mansions"), a Chinese classic novel. Apparently one of the foreign bookstores on Wangfujing has a good translation. Need to remember that.

As for teaching... it's just madness. I'm barely keeping on top of my classes. For instance, I planned tomorrow morning's 9-11am class this evening, and from 11-2 tomorrow I'll be planning that afternoon's lessons. Tuesday's lessons will be done once I get back from Beijing on Monday afternoon. Weeee... I can't wait for next Friday, 8:05pm. 7 days off. There are no words to express the relief I will feel. Actually, I guess the word "beer" would sum it up rather well. I'm still planning to head to Tianjin on Monday and possibly go to Shanghaiguan on Tuesday. Definitely Tianjin, but not sure about Shanghaiguan. It's a ways to go to only do one or two things there. I'll see how I'm feeling after Tianjin. The good news is that I ought to have a few more pictures to upload after tomorrow evening and Monday.

I had a great experience last night, which made up for my 3-hour afternoon conversation class shite. I took over a High-Flyer 1A class from Nick when he left, and there's this girl, Sally, in it who never smiled. I observed 3 of Nick's lessons, and he even spoke to me about her, noting that she only ever smiled for the class photo. Well... I got her smiling on Friday, and quite frequently. It seems so small a thing but - and although this sounds horribly cheesy - seeing a kid smile just... I dunno. Makes things here seem immediately worthwhile and significant. Like I'm not some transient. I did a funny activity at the end of my Starter class today. Instead of just saying good-bye one at a time, once I'd said good-bye to the first student in line, I had her stand next to me. Then I said good-bye to the next, and she did also. Then that student came up and joined our farewell line, also. It was quite fun watching the line of good-bye givers grow and grow. They thought it was hilarious and it seemed to make them feel really happy saying bye to their classmates.

So the conversation class shite alluded to... they were just completely useless on Friday afternoon. On Thursday they were rocking, but yesterday... I had to fucking “cudgel" their brains. Unfortunately, as per the remainder of the Shakespeare quote, their dull asses did not mend their place with beating. It was like kicking dead horses around for 3 hours. I had 1/3 of the class involved, and the others couldn't be buggered to do anything except mess around on cellphones and chat in Chinese. I had to approach one of the chief instigators and say, "Do you like writing? No? Well, here are your choices: you can write me an essay on this topic, or you can discuss it like you ought to be doing." I later had to tell him in the middle of class to shut up.

I really do love my classes of younger students. My Early Learners have kind of gone downhill, though. Trying to keep the attention of 5 & 6 year olds is tough. Not even Noddy and his wonky buddies are much help. Then again, it doesn't help when you do one or two things repetitively for 3-4 weeks running. But my High-Flyer Starter class and the High-Flyer 1A classes are great. I've even reformed a shit-disturber in the 1A class, and a 5-year-old in my Starter class who couldn't write before is doing so now, in English and Chinese. (When they put new words into their dictionaries, they write both the English and Chinese. Parents love seeing vocab.) One thing that will drive me insane, however, are the songs. I'm bringing back a CD with the "Gray Cloud" song and "Nice and Small" and others so that my friends can be forced to endure what I've had to. The worst is walking to a class only to find yourself quietly singing "Look look look... it's gray it's gray it's gray. Look look look... it isn't blue or green. The cloud is gray it's gray it's gray" etc.

Okay, time for me to go sleepy sleep and dream of the near future. A week of hell to endure, then I'm more or less in the clear. Then just 3 weeks after that. Wow... time's moving fast. 3 weeks of teaching, then 6 weeks of wandering, then... homeward bound.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

What's Your Doom?

Just a fun little internet test. Basically, you have to choose what you feel are the lesser of evils. Enjoy!

Take the Hecatomb™ TCG What Is Your Doom? quiz.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Busy 'R' Us

We've gone into our winter 'intensive period' with a vengeance. My hours went from about 17 hours a week to 27 or so. On top of the holiday 3-hour courses I have (1 this week, another starting Tuesday this coming week) I have some of Nick's classes: a high-flyer 1A and high-flyer 1B which have filled my weekends. Busy busy.

The folks at work did a bday thing for me last evening. Cake in China really sucks. The icing is liked whipped cream and Chinese cake/bread is odd at the best of times. It was nice, though. Some little girl with hair jewelry/tiara that Angie would have killed her for gave me the above-photographed yogurt drink. ... for some reason. The teachers are taking me out on Sunday given I'll be planning my Sunday lessons on Saturday night (wooo! 13 hour days). I think they're getting me a Takeshi Kitano boxed-set: 13 of his movies. I'll be quite happy with that given that it has Hana-bi (Fireworks) and another one I'd been looking for, but doesn't have "Takeshis" (a movie about a look-alike meeting Takeshi, which is kind of surreal) which I bought separately the other day. Joy! So that'll be a cool gift and a nice addition to my Asian movies collection.

Last Sunday, my TB 3As inquired as to whether I might "treat" them for supper for Spring Festival. It was very cute. There were only 4 of them, and they'd obviously planned to ask me in advance. I said sure, so long as three conditions were met: 1) Andrew the DoS approved, 2) it was on an evening when they could all make it, and 3) they had to have parent permission and 1 parent chaperone. (If more than 1 parent goes, the parents will insist - violently - on paying, which would be against what the kids would like, which is me taking them out.) They were all excited during the break - they were telling Betty - who was my TA for that class - about it and were all a-giggle in the hall. Great kids.

Nick and Katy are heading out quite soon - on Monday, I believe. Nick's last day was Thursday. We all went out for KTV, which was fun. I sang (ha!) "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and it sucked (read: I sucked). The machine's prompts were totally wonky with English songs. Found out that most of the girls have awesome singing voices, especially Lily, Betty and Amy. It was a fun night, and always good to get everyone out together, something we hadn't done since bowling back in December. Cost 400 yuan for 2 hours, though... karaoke is not cheap.

No teacher replacement for Nick as of yet. Hope one shows up soon as things aren't about to get any more calm around here. Two more weeks of "oh god please shoot me in the face", then 7 days off for our Spring Festival holidays, then the last insane week of the winter period. Then back to normal and 3 weeks of classes for me, and then... I'm off into the wild blue yonder. Likely as of the 21st of March. Hu'rah. I've decided I'm going to hit Xi'an and Chengdu first, and then move southeast and come up from Song Shan/Wutang Shan at the end. Ironically the last thing I'll see will be the Great Wall. Ironic because it's probably the closest prominent Chinese attraction and there are lots of spots I could see portions of it nearby. Just haven't done so. I missed walking to a near-abandoned portion near Datong because I forgot.

Oh, I almost forgot. I had a cool VIP this week: Barry, a 79-year-old Olympics volunteer hopeful. He's going for the interview/try-out in a few months. He's such a nice old guy, and in awesome shape. The guy plays what I can only call "foot badminton" (they use a hacky-sack surrogate shuttlecock, with a net), dances, sings, etc etc. A very nice man, and quite enthusiastic while still coming across as humble. Good sense of humour and quite focused as a student. Just amazes me that he wants to be an Olympics volunteer at his age. Pretty amazing stuff. We got interviewed by the local paper. They caught wind of what he was doing and showed up at the end of our class. They taped a portion of us doing classwork, and then interviewed him for 20 minutes. Purdy neat.

That's it for now. Me must sleep.