Monday, June 30, 2008

Goodbye Goodbye

You can reach me at my mothers, that's
five oh three 2 four zero 4 nine nine 2
Eighteen14 N. Alberta St
Portland, Or

Beijing year, you ended in ten months, so that was weird.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


"It never rains in Beijing."
I tell this to all my guests. First with Devon it was a storm as we walked through Factory 798. The walkways were all being repaved with tasteful brickwork, and the half-made streets became sludgy labyrinths.
Then with my pop it was a shattering downpour as we came home from the airport, slowing traffic to a crawl.
Finally with Sara's family it was rain day and night, staining our feet through our shoes and covering the city with a dense mist.

I know what is happening, I've seen soldiers in the street taking chainsaws to the aluminum frames of my favorite food booths. The paint from our apartment building is steadily seeping off.

Ripped up and re-done every few days, Beijing was a city in the throes of a dream, and as each family showed up to remind me of home that dream has gotten paler, thinner, and noticably soggy.

When the plane takes off in 36 hours, it will start with dry lightning in every corner of the sky. A few minutes later the rain will start, and it won't stop until every shiny new brick and smoothly laid tarmac has dissolved like cotton candy in the sink. When I come back in one year or two or ten the city I knew will be gone.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Let's make it to 100

Wept openly in the hallway today outside class 3.2
If I was feeling sick, my throat fucked up from the pollution and the myriad bacteria these kids breathe on me, I could that class in a whisper. There was not one kid, not ONE, who didn't know the material. The kid who started the year jumping out of his desk to punch other kids every time my back was turned had become a slightly overactive goofball who did his best to get picked for every game. The shy kids were happy to shout, and we could do straight-from-the-book review for an hour if we had to without one kid losing focus.

I didn't learn their names, I showed up tired, I didn't always have the best material to work from, but I loved those kids.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Writing about stuff that you don't want to talk about is an odd feeling.
The things that you discover about yourself when working with kids are not always pleasant. In my case, Abe Simpson's remark that as a parent he was "mainly in it for the spankings," feels uncomfortably close to the mark. I've never touched a kid except to give them a pat on the back or a hug if they reach for one, but still I worry that affection is not my primary way of interacting with the kids at the elementary level.

This has nothing to with my 11th graders. For them, a stern talking to, simple rules, and the threat of a dictation lesson, are enough to get them to a reasonable volume, and since my classes have topics like robots and skateboards, I usually have their attention. With older kids it's easy to see when my boring lessons result in bad behavior. But with my little kids I am not so kind.

When Sara and I go over what happened in class today, if she had a problem with her class her concern is teaching strategy: what didn't the kids understand, what did they know so well that they were bored, what to do better next time. I worry about none of these things. I play the same seven or eight games every day, and the kids love 'em. They laugh and shout, they get excited, and they're fixated on the answers to questions even when it's not their turn. But when the class gets out of hand, when I can't control the kids, all I think about is punishment.
Somebody's not paying attention? Sara would ask them with a smile to face her, my strategy is, if he's not any great student, warn him once to pay attention, and the second time stand him up at his desk and ask him to say the sentence or phrase on his own. The kid will turn red, and the other kids will laugh at him, problem solved.

Is one kid goofing off and trying to get attention? Sara would sit him down and talk one-on-one with him about what he needs to do better, giving him the attention he craves in a positive way. I tell the whole class they need to be silent for a second. The kid will inevitably shout something just as the class is at their quietest, so I subtract a point from his team (the class is always in two teams). When he's the one who cries out "awwww!" I subtract another point. If he keeps acting out, it means his switch has been completely flipped, he doesn't care if his team hates him just so long as they look at him, so the next time he acts out I pick up a chair and set it at the back of the room facing the back wall, I sit him in that chair and take a point away from his team every time he turns around to look at the front. Then I play a game with the rest of the kids, jumping and tossing a ball around. Now if he acts out he loses his team points and gets no attention, plus it's boring. I've turned more than one kid from clowning this way, but it's important to do it right, the other day I tried it but the kid sits in the front of the room and so walking him to the back meant he ran a little gauntlet of kids talking to him and waving at him. Like a lot of the kids he felt bad and bored in the chair, but I know the attention of walking down that aisle was worth it, and tomorrow he'll pull the same stunts to make it happen again.

Okay so those are two examples where I sound fairly sane and effective, but it just doesn't stop. I'm punishing kids for not repeating with the class, then I punish them for repeating too loudly. I punish kids for turning around in their chair, I punish kids for fiddling with a toy in their desks, and then I punish them if they don't put the toy into my outstretched hand but rather make me reach for it. I carry a bag of candy around in my bag and once in a while I'll give everyone on one team candy but it's not really because that team did so well. It's because I want to punish the other team.

To get the class in unison I command them to all stand up, then jump. Then I tell them to all sit down and for a second I've got everyone's attention, every eye is on me and we can continue the lesson. In a one hour lesson I do this about twenty times. One kid looks right at me, makes eye contact, and instead of hopping up out of his desk and standing to attention, he makes a slow, deliberate motion of setting each foot on the floor and easing himself up like he's an octogenarian. The first time he does it I warn him, the second time I stop the class, take a point from his team, and then walk up to his desk and tell just him to stand up. Then I tell him to sit down, then I tell him to stand up, then sit down. Then I smile at him, and touch his shoulder, and tell him he needs to do it just like that, and I knew he could do it fast if he really tried. The third time he stands up slowly and deliberately I sit him in the back facing the wall. He's already crying as he gets to the back of the room, and he keeps crying for the five minutes he's back there, his eyes puffy as he rejoins the class. Since this whole thing was for attention, I don't let the classroom assistant talk to him during his punishment or afterward.

Kids aren't allowed to talk during their monthly tests, and one girl last week would not be quiet. I warned them at the start that they would get a zero on the test if they were talking. Now I can't actually give any kid a zero unless I'm sure that they're cheating, but since I can't understand their Chinese I really can't let them talk. So I tell the class once again that they need to be quiet, and when this girl starts talking again I come down the aisle from the back so as to approach from behind, then reach out grab her test from her desk before she knows I'm there, and then ask her (through my translator assistant, Alice) if she'd like to tell her parents why she got a zero on the test. Again tears, but I give her back the test and let Alice give her a hug, as the little girl's violation of the rules was motivated not by a desire for the attention of adults, but rather the friendship of a fellow student.

I do this kind of stuff every day. And if a kid cries, or feels terrible, or is terrified of what their parents will say if they mess up again, then my next class will be a little easier, we can play some more games, learn some more stuff, and maybe have time to sing a song or two.

Of course, if one of the kids isn't singing, or if he's not dancing in unison with the other children, well then we've got a problem.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


We're leaving very soon.
In about 5 weeks we're grabbing a plane back to the states.
It'll cost us several hundred bucks to move our tickets for the second time (the first was because you can't actually buy tickets that return a year after you go out), but that is nothing compared to the thousands of dollars our families have spent on tickets to come and visit us in the next three months. Tickets that will take them to a city where we are not.

It's not homesickness that brings us back, though the thought of seeing our families and cats and eating burritos and going to the dollar theater and slowly reading an author's body of work at the library and talking to people on the bus about more than what country I'm from certainly has its appeal. Nor is it a lack of money, nor any particular hope of finding good jobs or getting our lives together when we go back.

No the trouble is visas.

A lot of people (especially those who are out thousands of dollars a trip to China) have been confused by this. Why would we suddenly discover that our visas did not run until our departure date but ended over a month before? Had some officious monoglot come to our home and torn out the finely printed sticker? No, the fact is we came on a visa that would last only three months, and we've had no trouble renewing it since. Several of our co-workers have lived in Beijing for years on the same visa renewed every few months.

But our co-workers are teachers, and though we eat at the finest restaurants and buy tailored suits we're still the bottom rung of expat society. Those of us living here on F visas, intended for business travelers, instead of a working Z, are employed by smaller, fly-by-night operations. It is we who the government is eager to see out of town during the olympics.

So we go.

On july 30th I eat my first burrito in nearly a year, and I'm having trouble feeling bad about it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chewing on both sides of my mouth

I'd been thinking that my jaw muscles were atrophied during the three months I waited for them to encrown my dental implants.

Of course I didn't think of the year and half since they pulled my molars (the week of my wedding I'll have you know)

Nor the year or so before that when these teeth were but painful bloody stumps.

It is a strange thing, to change for the better

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

doin' okay

my new teeth went in. I can chew on both sides of my mouth. The same day my favorite student showed me that she'd lost two teeth.

Now that the dentist is paid we can save half our pay without breaking a sweat, we got our family a nice hotel room for $35 a night right across the street from us.

I am doing drills in ping pong and as soon as I can return those super-low serves I will be a MASTER.

I'm studying chinese every day.

I'm eating a lot of vegetables.

We go to the movies whenever we want, because we're budgeting on fancy restaurants.

I found a shop that sells magic cards.

It's getting more and more obvious that it's time to move on.

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