Linguistic Breakfast

I am no longer the only Westerner in the hotel. A family is here – European I guessed from their backpacks and demeanor. From eavesdropping and based on their first sentences in English to the hostess, I though French or perhaps Russian (I know, I know, the languages themselves are very different, and Russia is not really Europe. However, when eavesdropping it can be hard to distinguish nuances in accents).

Through further eavesdropping yesterday, I determined that they are indeed French. I sort of want to talk to them – my French is pretty good, very good compared to my Chinese. But I also don’t want to be obvious and bug them. Ah, you’re not Chinese, and I’m not Chinese – let’s not be Chinese together!

This morning, they sat on one side of the small breakfast area, I sat on the other, and in between us sat a Chinese couple. We’re all polite and quiet – me with my journal, the other two tables because they have conversational partners. But I become acutely aware that I’m being watched – no, compared. The Chinese couple is speaking unnaturally low and from my peripheral I see the man looking to the French table, and to me, before speaking to his wife. I catch his eye, and in his friendly smile my suspicions are confirmed. I consider this an invitation – a small one, but still. We want to talk, but there’s a language barrier. So what? Let’s do this! I return the smile, and decide to do what I like doing – communicating:

Me: (pointing to me) Meĭguó rén – Wŏ shì Meĭguó rén. (Gesture to table) Tāmen Fàguó rén…(to French table)Excuses-moi – Francais? Vous etes francais, oui?
Gentleman at table: Oui.
Me: Hăo – Meĭguó rén, Fàguó rén.
Chinese woman: *question*
Me: Wŏ bù míngbái le – uh, Wŏ bú huì shuō Zhōng wén (to hostess) Qĭng wēn?
Hostess: Hăo? Yes?
Me: Wŏ bù míngbái le – what did she say?
Hostess: Umm…excuse me, but she want to know what you do here in China.
Me: Ah! Wŏ shì lăoshī! Hao? “Lăoshī?”
Hostess 2: lăoshī – teacher.
Me: Lăoshī.
Couple: lăoshī – ok!
French man: Execusez-moi – vous êtes de quel pays?
Me: Je suis Americaine.
Man: Pourquoi vous êtes en Chine?
Me: Professeur d’anglais.
French woman: A l’université?
Me: Non, a lycée…

And from there – well, it didn’t go much farther. I used up the bulk of what I can say in Chinese. But I learned the French daughter is studying abroad. So much damn fun!

Rough translation of the above: I said I was American, and that they were French. I confirmed this with the French family. Then the Chinese lady asked my job, which I had translated into English by the hostess. I said I was a teacher. The French father asked where I was from. I said America, and that I was a teacher. The wife asked if I taught at a university, and I replied a high school.

That’s like…three chapters in a language textbook right there!

A Dozen Alarm Clocks

I have two alarm clocks. More specifically, I have two alarm clocks in my room. One goes off at 8am to wake me up, the other is on snooze rotation until around 8:30am, when I debate whether I really need breakfast that morning.

Neither is really necessary, however, because outside my door I have perhaps ten more alarm clocks.

Before I explain that, let me preface with this: I really like my hotel room at the IBIS in WenJiang. The rooms are clean and comfortable, with thick curtains that block out 98% of all light. The staff is friendly, even when we can’t understand each other. I get two complementary water bottles every day, and tea, and what problems I do have (limited breakfast options, mildew smell in bathroom) are minor enough that they don’t warrant serious complaint.

My alarm clocks are the guests.

The hotel’s walls are thin, I don’t have earplugs, and Chinese people speak loudly.  This morning, at around 7am, a man started singing at the top of his lungs in the hallway. Or his room maybe – somewhere really close to me. I hear Chinese people singing all the time, and normally I approve. They just break out into song, to themselves usually, in the supermarket, or just on the street. It’s like they don’t care who listens – they just gotta sing. That has a really negative flip side – not caring who listens means not caring who can hear them. So at 7am, this guy just starts singing as loud as he pleases, and I am less than pleased. It occurs to me to never wish my life were a musical again.

A few days ago, I woke up at about the same time to screaming and shouting – full on, “The hotel is on fire!” screaming. I was just about to bolt, convinced a blown circuit had set a room ablaze,  when the screaming turned to raucous laughter. It took me a couple of minutes to process what I was hearing. A large family was playing some sort of game I guess. The rules of the game were simple – scream really loudly, and everyone laughs. Repeat for half an hour. Once, I lost my temper a little, and decided I would poke my head out of my room to at least make it clear that someone ELSE was also in the hotel, and trying to sleep thank you very much. Except no one was in the hallway – all the loud voices were in rooms, except that the doors were open wide to the hallway. Makes sense – if you want your neighbor to hear you, what better way than to open your door and yell so your voice carries?

(Answer – go into the other person’s room. Jesus, please just go have a conversation in the same room!)

Outside, about the same time as my alarm clocks, comes the faint blaring of music from…well, to be honest, I don’t know. There are carts that sort of drive about playing music, and I don’t mind them because they usually play classical music. I bet I would be less tolerant if they didn’t coincide with my wake up time.

I would simply try to start waking up earlier, except that there are frequent revelers at night who come stomping through around midnight or 1am. The Babiface nightclub is right next door, and while heavy bass actually puts me to sleep, the bombastic party-goers do not. They aren’t so bad, really, since they only come through on the weekends. They’re just a very loud chorus of voices which lasts maybe fifteen minutes. Then there’s door slamming, and if I’m unlucky some loud tv (or sex) in an adjacent room for a little while longer. The issue is that between the evening clubbers and the morning songbirds, it’s hard to get uninterrupted sleep.

If I snap, the headline will read “American teacher stuffs ‘Do Not Disturb’ card down guest’s throat”

Slightly harder to deal with is the hacking wake-up call. Almost every morning I wake to the sound of someone scraping their lungs clean of debris. This morning, that singing man paused every couple of minutes to clear his throat – and I mean this dude was iron wool-ing his lungs of mucus. Since his door was open, the sound simply filled the void.  You know how in American movies there’s that crass hillbilly who just scrapes all the phlegm in his lungs up in one monstrous noise? That’s almost everyone in China. Men, women – no children, because the air pollution hasn’t ruined their lungs yet – they all just hack. And it doesn’t matter if it’s carpet or tile, inside or out. They hack and spit, hack and spit, or occasionally just blow a snot rocket on the street. I mean, no wonder no one sits down outside without bringing a seat cover!

I’ll admit that I really don’t like it. You can clear your lungs without making it a big production number. You shouldn’t spit on carpet, at least, because it’s hard to clean. And I want to chastise the students who spit inside the school, when the door outside is maybe twelve feet away. That is disrespectful to the building.  I put up with on the streets or when I’m driving the scooter, but I admit it makes me gag a little bit at meals. I recognize, however, that this is a cultural thing, and so I don’t say anything.

According to my Surviving China guidebook, the government is pushing to stop the spitting. They’re also pushing for children to start wearing diapers, but I actually understand children going to the bathroom in the bushes more than I get mass spitting. At least with the former you save on diapers, it might be more sanitary, and you learn young to hold it. You don’t keep pooping on the streets into adulthood (though I know there are grown men who see toilets of convenience everywhere).

I do remember that for the Olympics, Beijing tried to break the habit. Good on ya, Beijing. Ah, here is the New York Times piece on the subject. All I can say is: that pressure did not reach WenJiang. Nor did diapers (again, for the most part).

But I’ll be fine – I mean, they say my dorm room is almost done. So then it will just be me and…a few hundred high school students.


Growth to date: Well, while I am maintaining tolerance I am also getting better at recognizing when I don’t like something. This is growth for me – I don’t like to admit that I’m not cool with stuff.



Yak Butter Tea

Yak Butter Tea

This Sunday I visited the Tibetan district of Chengdu. Because Chengdu is the last big city before/after Lhasa, it has a large Tibetan community. And through this community I got to try something I’ve been curious about since I read it in my guide book – yak butter tea.

Really, it tastes like salty tea – I don’t know what I was thinking it would be like. Maybe thicker, like milk tea. It was good though, and I was happy to find it. We also had some sour soup, and yak meat pie.


Not to be confused with midi-chlorians or mitochondria – though all three have to do have to do with health, I guess.

I am not a hypochondriac by nature. I take a multivitamin, try to eat healthy, and wash my hands. I argue with my body when it gets sick. If I lose the argument, I get sick and then eventually get better. That’s that.

Traveling and being alone bring out my worry, despite my best efforts. Being removed from the familiar, all by myself with my gnawing fears, it is hard not to think on the worst. For example, I’ve had a sore chest for the past two days. It aches right above my sternum. Now, my fear kicked in and said I was having a heart attack – for two days. That I was going to drop dead in my nice little hotel room in mainland China, to be discovered by the cleaning lady in the morning. My books would go unpublished, my name unknown.

Now, the more likely diagnosis is I’m not sleeping in a good position. And I know I am sitting around too much, working on lesson plans by day and playing video games by night. Fixing my posture will probably help, as will getting up and stretching regularly. Some of you have seen me crack my sternum – it makes a really loud popping sound as it goes back into place. I’ve done that recently, and it did not fix anything.  And I can’t seem to stop my brain from painting all sorts of emergency scenario pictures. What if my sternum is crushing my heart? What if instead of a heart attack I’m having some sort of horrible heart-slowing episode? What if I caught some bug which is killing very slowly? Who am I going to call? Where am I going to go? Should I fly all the way back home to have a chest x-ray? My increasing-chondriac-edness comes into direct conflict with my bleak practicality, which reminds me that if I am indeed suffering a series of heart attacks I will most likely not survive a trip back home. More to the point, do I honestly think flying back home is going to make me live any longer ultimately? We all have set times, and perhaps mine is up.

Apparently, underneath my bright and bubbly personality is a frighteningly cold realist. She only comes out when my chest hurts, or my knees ache, or some new joint starts popping. If she were a Neil Gaiman character, she’d wear unwrinkled linen and sit with her legs crossed, and she’d always take a long, bored inhale before speaking. “Jean,” she’d sigh. “You think you’re going to live forever? That’s as laughable as twerking. And yes, your life and twerking are comparable in the Fathoms of Time.” Then she’d dissolve into void or something, leaving me to…eat scones despondently I guess.

So what am I to do? I am not sure how to get out of this mental whirlpool. On the one hand, I’m sure that if it were serious some other symptom would manifest – I wouldn’t be able to breath *knocks on wood* or my arms would go numb *knocks on wood* or I’d feel light-headed *knocks on wood* or nauseous *knocks on wood*. Yet I don’t *KNOCKS ON WOOD* have any other symptoms except a chest ache. On the other hand, chest ache is not good. I’ve got to get out of my own head! Tomorrow I’m visiting Chengdu again – that will be good. I’m taking Vega along to help me translate. I want to visit the Tibetan Quarter and try yak butter tea. That will be my “checklist to live” goal – I must live through tomorrow at least to try yak butter tea, and then come up with a goal for the next day until I feel better.

Times like these I realize I don’t have a will, and I never finished the “Jean’s treasure map funeral” plan I had.  I also realize that I’m creating these horrific scenarios without the aid of the internet. I don’t go to WebMD or anything like that, knowing full well typing “chest pain” will only result in words which might actually give me a real heart attack (knock on wood).

Just to be on the safe side:Let the record stand that I love my family dearly, and I want what pittance I have in savings to go towards making sure Daniel goes to museums, cultural events, and gaming conventions.

To be Happy

Me: Hello! How are you today?
Student 1: I am…happy.
Me: That is good to hear. Hi! How are you?
Student 2: I am happy.
Me: You are also happy?
Student 2: Shen ma?  (translation: What?)
Me: You are also happy? She (gesture to student 1) is happy. I (gesture to me) am happy. You are also happy? (gesture to student 2)
*Chinese chatter*
Student 2: Hao – yes.
Me: Good. Hi? How are you feeling?
Student 3: I am happy.
Me: (to myself) Of course you are…

15 happy students. When I studied to get my CELTA, I remember learning about ruts. Students understand one word, and so they will use that word even if it only sort of applies.  If you can’t remember how to say “annoyed” then you might as well say “happy” because you at least know what that word means. Happy is this all-encompassing word for “not bad.” And it is, apparently, the one emotion my students feel comfortable using. Except for my slightly sarcastic student who will use “sleepy” and “hungry” on occasion. It’s my own fault – I didn’t emphasize neutral words during vocabulary building.

So today, I started class with a mini-vocab building lesson. On the board, I wrote “I am HAPPY.” with happy circled and underlined. Then I re-enacted the beginning of class. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. I am happy. With each repetition, I slumped a little more. Giggles meant I was understood.  I then started to write other words around HAPPY – great, good, alright, fine, ok, in a good mood. These words, stemming from happy, will hopefully work their way into my class’ vocabulary system. And I am aware that feeling ok and feeling happy are not quite the same thing, but that is the point. Nuances are crucial, and happy is a good starting point to explain that.

This is not to say I would not be thrilled if my students were all, each and every one, happy. What a great way to be – authentically happy all the time. Except they’re high schoolers, so I know for a fact that this is not true. They’re probably bored, and tired, and angsty, and frustrated, and in love, and overworked, and melancholy, and excited, and jealous, and chilly (it’s not quite warm out), and a hundred other emotions. Happy, as a catchall, belies the depth of feeling. It is also is a buffer – my students don’t have responses to “Why are you happy?”  But it is a safe word for “even keel” – and I get that.

Douglas Adams says it best: “…the best way not to be unhappy is not to have a word for it.”Perhaps if I don’t teach them how to express negative emotions, they’ll never have them in English…

Then again, today I asked a student “How are you?”
“TERRIBLE!” She exclaimed dramatically.
“Terrible?!” I imitated. “Why are you terrible?”
“Because…teacher give me…many vocab work!”

Learning 🙂