Friday, December 28, 2007

Brazilian barbecue

It was the end of term and she'd made everything easy, I took my awesome Chinese Assistant teacher out to a place that advertisers as "Brazilian Barbecue."

Only option: buffet, with a complete salad bar (leafy greans are a rarity) but surprisingly little meat, just a pork-and-sauce thing and and a beef-and-bean thing sitting in chaffing dishes.

I skipped the raw salmon because the place was completely deserted, how long had that salmon been there.

Disappointed of meat, and embarrassed that my Chinese assistant was embarrassed that the place was so expensive, I sat down to have salad and stuff myself with beans in salsa (a first in China).

I noticed on our table a little list, presumably a separate entree that each of us could order. We could check the following:

Flank Steak
Eye Steak
Chicken Heart
Loin Strip
Heart of Loin Strip
Beef Rib
Sirloin Strip
Pork Shin
Pork Loin

I asked her to ask the waitress how we ordered our entree, and she disabused of this "pick one" notion.

Oh no my friend, we were getting EVERYTHING.

Spit after spit of bloody beef, greasy pork, barded chicken hearts and delicately spiced fish, were brought to our table by a cowboy-hatted waiter willing to cut as much as we'd like from each ten-pound hunk.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

There's only two more sleeps to christmas

I went to a German Buffet today. They had a string quartet playing christmas tunes. I drank a cup of strong coffee and a litre of beer, the first thing in my stomach all day, and nearly cried to hear christmas music for the first time this year.

It's not that beijing isn't christmassy (which the spellcheck agrees is a word, thank god), it's just that spray-painted "merry christmas" logos on the windows of japanese restaurants and mechanized santa mannequins in every shopping center doesn't really give one the feeling of home. I realized today that the 23rd was always my favorite day of Christmas. Walking around downtown, looking for a cooking utensil, not talking to anyone, drinking a movie theater. The unmortgaged time so rare in any other season.

I ate my first snail sausage, and they had chocolate mousse. It cost forty dollars for both of us. We were surrounded by germans telling restaurant horror stories about life in Beijing.

I started drawing again, learning about guidelines and proportions from a chinese Manga instruction book. I did some sketching at the table, eating one ginormous meal a day has an absurd effect on one's state of mind. I found a store last week that sold proper drawing books and those thick hexagonal sticks of graphite I love so well.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Every Baby Cries the same

computer's back up, hi.

The chinese learning continues apace. By the end of August there's no reason I won't be able to puzzle out street signs, a menu, and possibly a child's book.

Everything, every sound that people make, sounds different here. Uhm ("oo"), ah ("uh"), hi ("eh?"), whoa ("ay"), uh ("dooey"). They all sound totally different. Different tone, different vowels.

Except coughing.

It's really weird to here someone cough. When I hear someone in a coughing fit outside my apartment window, my first thought is still "I thought we were the only white people on this block."

We got a christmas tree

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Chalk and Talk

did you know that I can't see my own blog? It's true! That means I don't know if you saw the first time I made this video. But anyway, I made it again just in case.

sideways video

so okay, this video is sideways and not too clear, but I still had to film it. There's a giant earthmover with a jackhammer arm demolishing half of this building, and in the other half there's somebody with an open cigarette shop.

If' I hadn't been in a hurry I would have gone back and re-filmed the whole thing.


sorry about the angled, "batman-style" camera, but you have to admit it is pretty awesome.

admittedly the couple (I think they're a couple...) that run the place do know my order, but I still try to say it every time. I think they've noticed my improvement, and they're always so happy to see me, it's really nice. The place is right on the way to the high school I teach at, and if they didn't use a charcoal burner to heat the place, it'd be perfect.
also I accidentally uploaded this this video.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


When will this city open its secret heart to me? It took me five years to see the Soapbox Derby, would it take five years for Beijing to reveal its center?

Yesterday the surly cook at the open air restaurant near our apartment kneaded a ball of dough the size and shape of a football. Then he grapped some sort of special tool and, holding the ball to his chest, with rapid motions shaved off hundreds of tiny noodles, one at a time, into a giant steaming pot.

I will stay until August, but you are not under a deadline Beijing. I will come back. I can wait.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


we're having some trouble with video, I'm going to try this again....

Crowded bus and Jian Bing writ large

The person speaking on the bus is the driver, telling people to move back.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

minnie mouse backpacks race

these two rolling backpacks used the identical Minnie mouse clip art.


so you can count to ten on one hand here

Also you can dualbox hats.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pros and Cons

So I'll be going to a dental hospital to get my root canal and implants, but for all the filing, crowning, and bridgework I went to a plain old clinic. They're tiny storefronts where people on the sidewalk can look in and see you in the chair.

1) cost 10% what they would in the US
2) walk in service
3) modern equipment
4) the dentist will photograph every single cavity before and after, to prove that he's actually doing something with all that drilling.
5) removed the stump of a tooth mostly covered by gum without referring me to a dental surgeon or even charging me anything
6) did something at one point that made smoke come out of my mouth.

1) speaks no english
2) doesn't turn off his cell phone
3) will chuckle when you scream in the chair.

Sara asked me what I meant by the chuckle. Was it like he didn't beleive me or what? It's more like "hahaha, okay, you win, I'll stop the agony."

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Halloween in November

This video was taken during the five minutes of "free time" my students often get at the end of class to work on homework and listen to the super sounds of the 60's.

If you should desire a sort of strangled, choking, hate claw its way up your spine

become a copyeditor

Monday, November 5, 2007

Der Bomber

Sorry neither is particularly clear, but you know.

Here's a blurry photo

Sunday, November 4, 2007

our apartment

pretty much the only two odd things about our apartment are 1) the shower and toilet being separated only by a curtain, and 2) that our balcony is in fact a windowed-in room (dust storms make a real balcony unusable). Of course you can't drink the tap water or flush toilet paper, but come on, that's life in the big city. Am I right? Know what I'm sayin'?

Friday, November 2, 2007

New Day

Sorry 'bout the cussing folks, sometimes a man with a mouthful of beautiful teeth has gotta express himself.

The procedures:
Bridge and two crows on the top left
Four joined crowns on the four front top
Three crowns on the top right
Three crowns on the bottom left

possibly one root canal, and then three implants bottom right

and all of it's affordable, all of its available

Five years of pain. Three teeth extracted days before my wedding, hundreds of meals spoilt by a sharp jab as I try to bite down. And it's been years since I've felt the sensual pleasure of really chewing something


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

exam question, sample

What’s an “upgrade”?
a) something new that you’ve never seen before
b) an improvement of something that you already have
c) a replacement
d) a hat invented in the 1600’s to prevent sunlight reaching the lips

Friday, October 26, 2007

Gas fired


What's Chinese design like?
Well it goes a little something like this:
Text goes every which way on this chinese advertising sticker, I know it's an ad for something, not any sort of official notice

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Guess I'm doing fine

If you're looking for travelogue information, it's not in this post. I'm tying up my tie as Sara walks past, it is early for us and we're heading off with an hour lead so that we can grab lunch before work. I give her a kiss, and we smile at each other.
It's the best feeling in the world, being together like this
I'm doing okay.

Monday, October 22, 2007

and we're back

so I'm going to dump some stuff here, not having a lot of time this morning but feeling guilty about not updating.

I'm getting my teeth fixed, a process both easy and affordable as long as I arrive with a chinese guide and translator.

Also I have some videos where I am snarky

not that, with bridgework and crowns going in, I'll ever chew gum again...

That GoldenEye thing was all for you, Zach. You're probably the last of my friends with a clear memory of a close render distance.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Two bags of milk

Lucky Sevens

(by the way Zach when you send new questions you really should number them continuously, otherwise we're gonna have problems)

7 How are Chinese elementary school kids?

Look for a video on this subject later this week but basically they are just like little kids everywhere. they like school, they like the teacher, they want to be bad and roll around on the floor but they also want to be good. Once again I've got forty kids in the class, so it can be a nightmare to control on a bad day, but I divide them into two groups and do a bunch of stuff like:
"team two stand up!"
"team one touch your knee!"
"team one stand up!"
"team two jump twice!"
"team one clap three times"
"okay all sit down, back to color words"
they looooove it, it's silly and it's a game (if anyone on a team doesn't do it right, the team loses a point, the team with the most points each day gets..... nothing) and it works off some energy.
The lesson's gotta be tight though, if the material is too easy they get bored, and if it's too hard they get confused.

But you asked me what the kids are like, not the class. And that's complicated. I have a student in one class who grew up in America, and it's really hard to talk to her. You see, she's got an american accent, and I can ask her questions like "how's your mom?" or "what are you doing this weekend?"

Having her there just reminds me how little connection I can have with the other 9-year-olds. They know a lot of words in english, but the conversation is still somewhat limited. And I wish we could talk a little more.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Let's listen to Badly Drawn Boy and finish answering question six

6 What are Chinese high school kids like?

I was looking at this artists attempt to pixelate a few dozen famous musicians, and I realized I didn't know who half of them were. Hence I just heard Badly Drawn Boy for the first time.

They're like kids everywhere! I teach at a magnate school, so they're all pretty good at something. Some of them don't act too well, but that's maybe five kids out of 50, so I'm not going to complain about that.

They get embarrassed, they want to seem cool but thankfully they don't think it's completely stupid to know things, and they're all into the subject, as I've said. So yeah, they don't seem that different. Every time one of them comes to talk to me in my cubicle they always bring a friend for courage. That friend rarely says anything, they're just there.

Sara took this video
it good.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Let's listen to Queen and answer question six

6 What are Chinese high school kids like? Is being a high school teacher like what I imagine based on the teachers I had in high school? I realize this question is impossible, but any attempts would be appreciated.

Short answer "no" with an if, long answer "yes" with a but. I'm a new teacher so I think my experience is more like a student imagines it. I am into the subject, and I sort of do live or die with how my kids are doing with on any particular day. I think the basic technicalities of a high school teacher are lost on a student: I teach the same class six times a week and all my students wear uniforms so it's more than a little difficult to tell the kids apart. This doesn't stop them from visiting me in my cubicle and saying "Hi mister Fee, it's me Jack!" (jack is a really common english name).

Beyond that, no, it's like teaching high school, you get obsessed with having a hot beverage, everybody lies to you, people want to cheat on tests, the smartest kids want to talk with each other.

I have the extreme advantage, however, of being tall, looking old, shouting a lot, and teaching a subject that most of the kids find more interesting than gossip.

Last week I brought in an article about harry potter. Everybody was interested, but the kids just would not shut up. I had a sore throat and they were just babbling on over everything I said. I tried to make them quiet down and participate until I realized when they were talking: they were translating difficult words. We ended up talking about how Voldemort's thinking is impaired by his lack of a complete soul.

When it's going right, you walk out of the class feeling like a million bucks.

One Two Three Four Five

5 How are everyday common manners different? For instance, it used to be that in Germany everybody was pushy and competitive in public.

I have no idea. I don't speak the language well enough and I don't know what behaviors are reactions to my foreigner status. In my own neighborhood it took a lot of getting used to: people would not only stare at me, they'd tell their friends "hey, look at that." It may be the fact that I'm a foreigner that gets me such polite, helpful treatment everywhere I go.

The first guidebooks I bought said that people would cut in front of me in line, spit on the street, burp loudly at meals, and try to charge me 10 times what they charge everyone else. So far none of this has happened. I did recently learn that the vendors at the mall I frequent really will shave 1o RMB off the price of everything, but that's closer to a 5% markup, and really what else could I expect? You wouldn't expect someone freshly arrived in the US with 200 words of english to get the best deal on a cell phone plan, why should I get an ulcer over paying three dollars extra for a DVD player?

The people are nice, they're helpful at restaurants, a lot of the teenagers have some very limited english, but most people are utterly confused by my limited vocabulary and total illiteracy. When pointing at random to a menu item, I'll often get asked a long sentence in mandarin ("I don't understand what you're saying, sorry" is a phrase I whip out every hour or so), but no one makes a fuss about it. There are often three or four people working in a five-table restaurant, and people do stare, at us as we eat, but again it's hard to see that as a cultural constant.

Oh wait I finally thought of one odd thing: some guys, I assume the more uncouth, when its hot will roll their shirts up to reveal their bellies, tucking the roll in their armpits.

That seems weird.

Question Four

4 What would it be like if you were a single guy like myself?

Geez man it's hard to say. I think the pressure to be with someone might feel pretty strong. This is a hard situation to lay out because I know if you came here it would be amazing, and totally change your perspective and whatnot, but I'd be worried about you if you flew solo.

What does coming alone mean? Coming alone and staying alone would be closer to hermitage than odyssey. But if one is inclined the prospects for a college-educated white guy with a good job are many.

The expats here all seem to be pretty wolfish in their interests, eliminating potential partners only for the gravest of offenses.

But what a window it would offer into the country if one dated someone from here!

If you're working for a company like mine, you're working with a lot of Chinese women who speak good english and may or may not be interested in meeting someone. And then there's the issue of dating someone from work.

The fact is that coming with someone isn't easy. It's more tempting to just stay in and speak English rather than go out and practice making a fool of yourself in shops. But without mastery of mandarin one's dance card will remain pretty empty for the first while, single or not.

That said, the big weird experiences available here are endless. Traveling with a romantic partner, it's hard for either of us to say "hey, let's go try this, maybe it'll be a public bath and sauna, maybe they'll try to burn our skin, let's go find out." Bravery doesn't necessarily stack, but one person's cowardice often applies to both.

Shared experiences have colored my time here a lot, so it's sort of hard to know how things would be. Without someone to go with who would Sara be videotaping here?

We know two girls, college friends, who came here together, and they've got a lot of benefit from it. They go places together, give each other sympathy, but they're also free to pursue their own stuff. I don't know if they can always draw comfort from each other, but still it's going well.

That'd be my recommendation: don't fly solo. Go on craigslist Beijing, find a roommate, have the school room you with somebody, invite one of the other n00bs out for beer the first day, do something so that you feel like you've got some context.

Maybe you can't take photos like this:

But still, you'll have someone to go with you to this:

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Two and Three

2 Are you by any chance coming to the states over the holidays?
Not really. They've got pizza here. Although pizza hut is the fanciest restaurant I've eaten at so that's weird.
3 Do they have big winter holidays in China?
Yeah we get a month off school, January I think, for Spring festival. It's when everybody goes home to see their family. But we work christmas day, in fact we have a "christmas party" at our school. People will do little sketches.
The one I'm really dreading is Thanksgiving. That was the one that really got to me when I was living on the east coast. It's not the working, that'll be okay, it's the being away from family, not cooking a big meal, all that. Thanksgiving was always my favorite.

Questions I've only been asked once but still feel like answering

1 Is teaching English hard? How does it work?

It turns out that I'm nobody's sole english teacher. In high school this makes total sense. Without mastery of Mandarin I couldn't really increase their english level, as I can't explain complex grammatical constructions. So for my 11th graders my class is a sort of coaching session. I show them something, like how presidents are elected, we talk about it, I try to get them to talk and participate, and they generally practice listening to and understanding a native speaker. I'd love it if everyone in the class got a chance to talk, but there's 50 kids in a class (video of that later)

For my primary school kids, 2nd and 3rd graders, I have a Chinese teacher throughout the class. She (for whatever reason all the Chinese teachers are women) speaks quite good english and can understand what I'm saying, and she translates some of my classroom instructions. She's also the class's regular English teacher, so she keeps the class roster and records homework as well.

The answer to your binary question is no. I have to prepare a Powerpoint presentation every week for my 11th graders, which takes some time, and it's very tiring teaching primary school kids, but basically I'm making a good salary for working 4-5 hours a day. In the elementary school I'm teaching one sentence a week (e.g. "What's for lunch?" "An apple.") and a little vocabulary. In high school I'm just talking slowly and clearly about some topic I pick.

Friday, October 5, 2007


two highly professional videos for you today on the subject of beverages and their slight differences from back home.

Oh and please leave a comment about how the video is working.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Linglong park

So about five blocks from our house, there's this park, Linglong park. Right now it's a little weird getting to it because the big set of stairs and entryway from the canal street is under construction (wish I'd photographed that.....) so the only way to get there is by going through a little hutong maze where people keep geese. Okay I guess that's pretty neat too. It's a little bit different from parks in the states, there isnt any grass to walk on. There's grass but it's all behind low fences. The main vegetation is shady trees. In a lot of other ways, though, it's just like the states. There are little pavilions where people watch their kids run around, and it's generally a place for people to come who aren't in a hurry. Also when we came there were some nerds out playing musical instruments, which was really nice.
The whole place is centered around this pagoda, which you couldn't go in to but provides a landmark wherever you are in our neighborhood.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

This book will save your life

If you are going to become an expat in Beijing, there is only one book you will need. I hadn't heard of it before I got here, but one of the other teachers had it and I was so jealous. I envied him right up until I saw one on a blanket for sale, and bought it for 10 RMB.

It tells you where you can buy large shoes, and how to adopt a chinese child.


So while this may not be a photoblog, there's definitely some vlogging going on.

I don't really know that no one takes their coffee black, it just seems really rare, as I've not yet seen anyone do it, it's very hard to find instant coffee that doesn't contain sugar and powdered milk, and my English Corner class went completely insane when I told them that I drink good coffee black.

I got it, I GOT IT

I am very happy that I captured this moment on video. Even if my camera was set to ultracompact, "youtube" quality.

What you're seeing here is the opening ceremony to the track and field day at the high school. They did it up as a mock olympic opening, with individual classes dressing up as previous olympic countries. So this is what I saw at 7:30 in the morning yesterday.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ginger Root

So my throat is killing me. I spend four ours a day speaking at the top of my voice, I'm living in the most polluted city on earth, and I've got a cold. My throat hurts. First thing in the morning is the worst. Either that or the moment in class when my voice just suddenly gives out and I'm speaking in a little mouse squeak for the next few minutes. Thankfully, food is cheap here and lemons are available. I've been living on a stead diet of tea with ginger, honey, and lemon.

that thermal coffee mug with the lid that actually seals is quite possible the most useful thing I brought with me.

Monday, September 24, 2007

This is not a photoblog

So look, at restaurants, there's no water. There's tea, there's room temperature coke, but there's no cold water. I think it's part of a complex belief system where tap water is unclean but bottled water isn't classy. So basically there are no cold drinks.
Except beer.
It doesn't look that big in the photo but these beers are huge, they're everywhere and they're ice cold.
Help me.

Video Test: meet me at the mall

Five storeys, five hundred plus booths on each story. I found a jade wedding ring within three minutes. I also bought some three-foot-wide coat hangers (think about it...), a new lamp with lightbulb, Hey look video works maybe!

Feet on the ground

So here's the view from our apartment. Visibility is about normal. The smog here is no joke.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Traffic in Beijing is weird
The first time I got in to a cab I thought we were going to die. We drove at 45 mph through busy streets, disobeying traffic lanes and stoplights.
Everyone drives like this.
A few rules:
If someone's in your way, honk. It doesn't matter if they're waiting for someone in front to move, it doesn't matter if they're re-paving the street, just honk.
Streetlights and crosswalks are just there for show. If you think it's possible to cross the intersection, do so by all means.
How many cars wide is this lane really? do you think maybe just maybe you could fit between those two busses? Well there's only one way to find out!
Does that bicycle lane (divided from the main street by a concrete barrier) look kind of empty? Well then drive right in! If a few cyclists get in your way, don't worry. Honk.

Here's the thing: it's safer than back home. I don't look both ways before crossing the street any more.
If someone's coming, I know they'll honk. No would ever hit a pedestrian without seeing them because pedestrians have the same attitude toward traffic laws that drivers do: I swear I see a guy walk across six lanes of traffic against the light every day. I've seen people drive by each other with at high speed with inches of clearance (I'll convert my anecdotes to metric later), I've seen city busses honking at old men on bicycles, I've seen people riding motorized scooters through a gridlocked intersection, everyone honking all the way. Drivers expect that if you see them, no matter if they've got a red light and you're in a crosswalk, you won't get in front of their car. If a car approaches you from behind, even if you're walking down the middle of an expressway, it'll slow down and ever so politely honk until you move.
It's beautiful, it all works, no one expects anyone else to follow any rules except seeking the shortest path from A to B. Nobody hits anybody else because they've got the right of way. Everybody's always watching. You never know when a tricycle pulling a wagon loaded with cardboard will pull into the fast lane.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Eff Ay Cue

So five days. Next Tuesday we get on a 747 and fly SFO to PEK. Some people that we've met have asked us some questions, here are the answers:
1) Plenty, about 7,000 RMB/month each with a free apartment, so 14,000 RMB/month free and clear.
2) More important than exchange rate is buying power, which is pretty good. Beijing is an expensive town and some things (lattes and X-boxes) are priced for westerners wages, but I don't see us eating any cup-o-noodles.
3) High school for me, Elementary and maybe middle school for Sara.
4) I don't know.
5) I don't know, hopefully pretty close but we're not teaching at the same place and if Sara teaches at two schools she'll have to travel in the middle of the day. How far apart? "Not far relative to the size of the city." Jennifer Ding is an awesome, frank person to talk to.
6) Only a few hundred words so far, but I can count to ten and tell someone I don't speak mandarin. Most importantly I can apologize, the equivalent of "excuse me me, sorry," by far the most critical phrase for any traveller.
7) Our Gmail accounts should still work, you can msn message me at toby[my last name][at]hotmail[dot]["comma" without the "ma"] and voice should be working.
8) We're getting a new pair every year.

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