Archive for September, 2005

Dinner at the Mongols

28 September 05

Last night a group of us decided to eat at the Mongols. The Mongol place is a restaurant located close to our hotel and is really quite popular with most of the instructors. It is in a field, with several rounded-concrete huts spread around in a circle. Each hut (meant to resemble a yurt, the dwellings Mongolians live in), has a table and a sort of banquete-style seating around the table.

The famed dish is barbecued donkey, and to my horror, someone ordered it. I didn’t partake, because I just couldn’t, but everyone said it was good. We also had some meat kebabs and various other dishes, including the ubiquitous North American style sweet & sour chicken, which was really good. For only $2 each we had quite a feast.

We are trying to avoid eating in the canteen more and more because we have discovered that although it is super-cheap, it is also super-low-quality! Hopefully, something can be done about it in the future. We have heard rumors that the company may be hiring a Western-style chef! (It sounds crazy, but after a month or so you really start to crave scrambled eggs, pancakes, spaghetti, baked potatoes, grilled chicken, etc….)

October 1st is China’s National Day and many of the students will be leaving the academy to visit their families. The cities are all decorated with Chinese flags and tons of potted plants & flowers have appeared out of nowhere to beautify the place. The holiday usually stretches into a week-long vacation for most. All of us westerners here at the academy have to work, but the weekend after we are planning on going to Beijing. Finally, I will be able to see the Forbidden City, Tianenmen Square and the great nightlife and food that Beijing has to offer.

Update on the Class

27 September 05

So the class went okay. I think it is actually easier teaching a class of 35 than just 2 or 3. We spent the whole class just doing introductions. With more students the time passes quickly, so you really have to be organized and aware of the time. I think it will be easier to do activities with a big group.

The students all speak some English, although with a huge range in ability. It will take me forever to remember all of their names, so next class we are going to do some kind of game to practice names. The problem I see a lot in China is that the style of teaching and learning is very much teacher-oriented. The teacher stands before the class and recites and the students listen. I do not think there is very much interaction. As a result, the students don’t really know how to take initiative and don’t always understand the concept of games and activities. Since I want this to be a speaking & pronunciation class, I am just going to have to get them motivated to talk. It wasn’t a problem today, everyone seemed excited.

BTW – they have chosen English names and some of them went crazy and chose things like Shrek, Eagle, and Cloud.

Miscellaneous Afternoon Thoughts

27 September 05

WOW, my office this morning is freezing. I don’t know how I am going to concentrate on lessons when all my energy is taken up in shivering. There is no AC control that I can find, so I am just gonna have to suffer it out. The good news is that I am feeling better. Whatever sort of bug I had, I guess I got rid of him. However, bad news for DH. He says that for about two days now he has felt some sort of “little smurf” or “little man” inside his stomach, trying to kick his way out. I have to admit I know the feeling. It is unusual for DH, though, because he can pretty much eat anything. Aww the joys of eating new foods….

I’ve just found out that the Aviation English teachers want me to give a speaking class to 35 students 2 times per week. I am supposed to start today, in one hour. When I asked for time to prepare lessons and activities, they told me that all I had to do was stand in front of the class and talk, that the students need to listen to a correct English accent. ?! How is that supposed to help them speak better English? One of the biggest problems in this school is communication problems between the Western flight instructors and the students. I wanted to prepare conversational and speaking activities for the students, but I am not sure how to go about it.

I am not sure how I feel about this. I have no preparation. I have no time to even think. I guess it will be fine, but I do not like to feel unprepared.

Home is Where the Refrigerator Is…

26 September 05

This weekend our mini-fridge and water cooler were delivered to our hotel room, which is now more of a studio apartment. It is really amazing having cold drinks, ice, cheese, yogurt, all the things we take for granted. It looks as though we may be living in the hotel for longer than we thought, which really isn’t too big of a deal. We’ve made it homey. I’ll upload some pictures if I can figure out how to do that!

We also bought a new monitor for our computer. We were using the TV as a monitor, but it was really difficult to see details and read small print. Now we have a 17′ flat screen monitor and it is fabulous! I’m working on designing a new look for the blog page, so hopefully that will happen today.

I am not at work right now because I am sick. I don’t know what happened. Yesterday I just started to feel all achy and now I have a low-grade fever. Must be a cold or a touch of flu. I don’t feel terrible, but I am not feeling good either. I didn’t want to risk making any of the students sick. They have too much going on right now, with flying and studying, to get sick.

NYtimes.com Disappoints!

26 September 05

Living in China, you often feel very disconnected from the Western world. The only access to news that I have is through the internet. I visit many different news sites to stay informed. One of my favorite things to do when bored was read the op-ed columnists at the online New York Times. Today I have discovered that NY Times is now charging for access to these columnists. I can still access news stories.

This really annoys me because it is not like I can go to my local library to read the opinion pieces. I rely solely on the internet. I will not pay the fee purely on principle. I understand that the NY Times is actually producing a product for sale with their newspaper, but come on, just imagine how much money they make, surely they can afford to allow internet users to access these columns.

Sounds like Chinese government policies. Millions of people in China are struggling for the right to access opinion pieces – the government is trying to stop online news outlets from posting anything but government approved or government written news stories.

Teaching English

25 September 05

As I mentioned before, I have a new job. I am working at an aviation academy, which is pretty cool because it is the first of its kind in China. There have never been private academies here before, mostly because there just hasn’t been a need for it. Now that China is opening up and growing economically, more people can afford to fly. So China is developing its Civil Aviation, with more domestic airliners and someday, private airplanes.

All of the students who are studying at our school will be first officers (the second in command) on airliners when they graduate. They have come from all over China to study here. They all speak English, although at very different levels. My job is to provide tutoring to students who need extra help in General English, as all the students also attend Aviation English classes with a Chinese English teacher. I am supposed to give 4 lessons per day, 5 days a week. Sounds pretty good, right? 20 hours per week. Well, there are so many students who want lessons that I am now teaching mini-classes of 3 to 4 students, instead of just one-to-one. It is a lot of work, since I don’t have any materials at all to work with. Thank god for the internet. Although it is a
little frustrating to have to develop my own coursebook & syllabus, the students make it worthwhile, as they are very motivated and sweet.

Two Unique Chinese Experiences

18 September 05

I have to tell you about two experiences I have had recently – China’s version of a “day spa” and Shijiazhuang’s night life.

China’s version of a day spa is called a bathhouse. Now, I know in the West, “bathhouse” has a sort of negative connotation, but not here, at least not in Shijiazhuang. It is a place to relax, have a massage, a sort of retreat. I went with the girlfriend of one of the other instructors. (update – turns out that bathhouses have both legitimate and sketchy services.)
The place was very fancy and plush, with lots of ornate decoration and marble. It felt a bit like a very nice hotel lobby. We gave a 100 Yuan deposit (about $12 US) and received a locker key. (The deposit reminded me that this is a place for the upper-class. They are the only ones that can afford it.)

The locker room was not like a typical, grubby, sweaty locker room. This one is carpeted with a gold chandelier and dark stained wooden lockers. There are attendants everywhere to help you, for instance, the attendant took our keys and open and closed our lockers for us. You sort of just get used to being constantly observed as a foreigner and the Chinese have a very different idea about personal space than North Americans – there just isn’t any.

After changing, we went to the steam and sauna rooms (none of this is coed by the way, men have their own section with a Jacuzzi, which the women don’t have.) Evidently it is supposed to be very detoxifying; I found it smothering hot at first, and then quite relaxing. Afterward we went to the showers where there was plenty of hot water. (At our hotel we generally only have hot water from 8PM to 8AM or whenever it runs out!)

After showering, we put on a pair of pajamas that the attendants gave us and went upstairs to the relaxation area. The room is sort of like a dimly-lit movie theater, (there is actually a movie screen, too.) It is filled with waist-high cubicles. In each cubicle are two twin beds, separated by a table. There you can sleep, relax, watch a movie or have a massage.

My friend and I decided to have head and foot massages. The head massage included the head, neck, shoulders and half way down the back, and was heavenly and so relaxing. The foot massage was odd at first, because I wasn’t really used to having my feet touched, but I instantly felt de-stressed. The total cost for 90 minutes of massage and use of the spa facilities? $10 US. I think I will go every week!

The second experience is the city nightlife. When we take the bus into the city, usually the latest we can stay is 8PM, when the last bus returns to the airport. At 8PM we noticed that there were tons of people out in the streets, walking their dogs (mostly little Pekingese and cocker-spaniel looking dogs), doing Tai Chi, line dancing, singing Karaoke, eating, or just observing other people. It is really a lot of fun. In one park we came across a whole group of people ball-room dancing.

Last night we decided to stay in the city late to go out and see how the Chinese of Shijiazhuang entertain themselves. We were a group of 5, an Australian, an Italian, another American, DH and I.

Our first stop was at a restaurant. We were led to a private room, something that is actually quite common here. We had a feast of very good Chinese food, some of the best we have had so far. Then we headed to a “lounge” that the Italian had heard of. Well, it turned out to be a singles bar located in a sort of subterranean club, three levels down. I felt like I was entering a speak-easy or something. There were tables full of Chinese surrounding a stage where a few performers were singing. We were not sure whether they were amateurs or not. It seemed like an open-mic kind of thing.

After about an hour we finally figured out how the club worked. On each table there were pieces of paper and a pen. If you saw someone that you liked, you called over a girl dressed like an angel or cupid, and gave her the message you had written, usually including your mobile phone number or email address. These messages were then posted on an electronic display above the stage, all in Chinese, of course. Occasionally the musical acts were interrupted for a betting contest or a free-for-all disco dance. There were even door-prizes. If you are single and Chinese it looked like a fun place.

After the singles club we went to Disco City which is a big multi-level nightclub. On one level was a karaoke bar, (they call them KTV), on another a smaller bar with techno music and on the lowest level and dance floor with dance music. This wasn’t just any dance floor, however, this one bounced up and down with the beat of the music. It must be set on springs or something. It was a lot more fun than it sounds!

The clientele of the club were Chinese in their mid-20s to 30s, and I imagine they are more well-to-do. We were pretty surprised to see about a half-dozen Westerners as well. The Chinese love to drink, as evidenced by several of them passed out in various places of the club! Doesn’t seem to be the big no-no it is in the West. All-in-all it was quite an interesting night.

A New Job

17 September 05

I have a new job! For the first time ever, I happened to be in the right place at the right time! I am now the remedial English tutor for the academy! To get started, I ‘ve spent the last two days editing and proofreading the academy’s English website, which was in “Chinglish” or very bad English, as translated directly from Chinese. I am learning that Chinese is a very flowery language. I hope to learn more, but for now I only know how to say hello (Ni Hao), thank you (Xie Xie) and how much (Dor Shao Che).
Today is a beautiful day. It rained over the past couple of days, sending the pollution away for a few days. I’ve noticed that after the rain, there are rust spots all over my brand new bicycle. Acid rain perhaps? It is noticeably cooler out, too, which I am thrilled about.

Speaking of bicycles, two days after we bought them, DH’s left pedal fell off. He hasn’t been able to get back to the store to have it fixed. I told him he should have not been so cheap and paid an extra $10 for a fabulous bike like mine.
The other day we went into the city to look at mini-refrigerators and water coolers. In China, there is plenty of boiling hot water to be found everywhere, but what we want is COLD water! It turns out that a very nice medium sized refrigerator is only about $200! So we are going to get one. That way we can keep essentials like milk, yogurt and water cold. (DH insists that beer is also an essential.)

It is lunch time (11 AM) so I am off to the canteen.

Double Decker Donkey Trucks

11 September 05

There are a lot of trucks on the highways of China, loaded to the max with all sorts of interesting things. They are not the usual American style eighteen-wheelers, more like the European style with smaller trailers and smaller cabs. I imagine they are transporting all the goods and materials used to make the stuff we consume everyday all across the world. Today I saw a double-decker trailer, loaded up with donkeys, sort of the way we transport cattle in the US, except the top trailer was open to the air. Many of you know my obsession with donkeys, so it was sort of a cool sight for me. Unfortunately, donkey is treated like any other meat here in China, and I have heard that there is a Mongolian restaurant behind our hotel that serves a very good donkey barbecue. I can’t imagine in a million years that I will be checking that out, but DH says he is game to try it.

Today was an extremely polluted day and now I understand why people complain. The air literally tasted of chlorine at times. That has got to be bad for the lungs. The visibility was so bad that the academy couldn’t even do any flights. We went to the city to pick up our now fully-functioning digital camera and stopped by the provincial museum. There we learned that the chief products of the region are chemicals! No Kidding!!
I have heard that Shijiazhuang is one of the most polluted cities in China. What a shame that we are living in it. Actually, I have also heard for the first time ever they are actually trying to do something about it. The problem is that there are many coal power plants and chemical factories around and they have been pretty lax with anti-pollution measures in the past. Now with the Olympics coming in 2008, China wants to suddenly make everything nice and clean. We’ll see. Yes, I know the Olympics will be in Beijing, but we are only a few hours from there and the airport here will most likely be used as a secondary destination.

Hopefully with the coming of fall we will start to have those crisp, clear days that I love so much. (I did say hopefully…)

The Village

8 September 05

Today DH and I ventured to the “village.” (I have no idea what it’s name is, that is just what everyone refers to it as. Sort of makes me think of that creepy movie, The Village.) It was only about a 20 minute walk away. Basically, it is a stretch of road with shops along both sides, for about a quarter mile. The shops sell things like bicycles, food, alcohol, industrial stuff, clothes, etc. It is very dusty and sandy and doesn’t really have any charm at all. But the villagers were very friendly. Everyone kept calling out “hello” to us, which is their only English. Again, we were the morning entertainment. We each bought a bicycle, from separate stores so we could kind of “spread the wealth.” Mine is maroon. Nothing special about it except it has an extra suspension spring. The bikes are like paper and we are worried about even riding over a rock with them, lest they fall to pieces. Quality does leave a lot to be desired here. Still, they will get us around just fine, and for a total of $25 you can’t complain. (Although that is a fortune to the villagers.)

Tonight we ate at the academy canteen. We had rice, a stir-fry with pork, red bell peppers & celery, and a pear, all for 50 cents. It is so unreal!! (I have to admit that although very cheap, the canteen food is not all that great. We are going to try more restaurants around the airport to see if they are better.)

I hope to have a link up to some pictures soon. Back in Toronto, I broke the LCD display on our digital camera, so we were unable to use the menu or see pictures after we took them. Well, we visited an authorized Canon repair shop here and found out that for repair and labor it would only cost $50, so we are getting it fixed. I can’t wait to get the camera fixed so we can take lots of pictures.