Month: February 2009


1. spurred or moved by a strong feeling, madness, or a supernatural power (often followed by by, of, or with): The army fought as if possessed. The village believed her to be possessed of the devil.

2. self-possessed; poised

I’m possessed by all kinds of things, notably the crazy idea that I should spend Sunday planning the lesson for my six upcoming classes. Every Sunday is the same: I procrastinate, get sidetracked, and finally resist this sensible activity like a kicking and screaming child. Part of this can be understood: in my case, a lot of teaching is intuitive; it falls into place or progresses logically from something specific that happens in class. When it comes to planning, my best ideas come to me while walking around the track on the athletic ground at school. I just can’t sit down and DO IT. Does this make me evil? Buddhism says that the misery we experience comes not from our experiences but our resistance to them. Amen. So here I am blogging instead of planning.

The spring weather is gone; it was a faux spring. Now we have cold, wet, clammy weather, but the cleanest, purest air I’ve breathed since being the mountains of western Sichuan. Thank goodness for small favors.

My childhood was marked by a love of the absurd, and, from my earliest memories, an overwhelming desire to get away. My first destinations were inside my own imagination, then I started expanding: I decided that I wanted to be French and live in Paris. I finally went there, said “OK, so I’ve seen it,” and moved on. My twin obsessions, books and travel, have for a long time now been directed to the “mysterious” Himalayan regions, including Tibet, Nepal, and parts of India such as Ladakh. I’m not alone in this; my current reading is about a woman who was possessed to undertake journeys both spiritual and physical into these regions, Alexandra David-Neel. She was also French. Mais oui.


 Alexandra David-Neel


Alexandra David-Neel, French by birth, English by education and American in temperament … led a youthful life as a student radical, had a career as an opera singer admired by Massenet, became a feminist journalist who flirted with Mussolini, tried conventional marriage in which she failed, journeyed to India, Tibet, and China, where she studied, traveled, and wrote despite famine, plague, and civil war, and where she was effortlessly at home.

The woman shed her past lives like a serpent does its old skin; in each life she buried the previous one, concealing its traces. In her very last incarnation, as the Eastern savant, she effaced her whole previous history. Why?

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. xii [Woodstock, NY: the Overlook Press, 1998]




This was a woman for whom the word “gutsy” might have been invented. Before I came to China I read her book Magic and Mystery in Tibet. In the past couple of years I have read and re-read My Journey to Lhasa. It’s a never-ending source of wonder to me how a 55-year-old woman, in the 1920s, could walk cross China and into Tibet, in the dead of winter, accompanied by her adpoted son, after having been turned back four times previously (Tibet was strictly closed to foreigners). She survived, and became world-famous as the first European woman to set foot in the holy city of Lhasa.

Her prose is straighforward and down-to-earth, but it’s her matter-of-fact, never-say-die sang-froid that always gets me. If you read my posts faithfully, you’ll remember the word phlegmatic (unemotional), but sang-froid adds a French twist, and literally means cold blood. It’s self-possession or imperturbability, especially under strain.

More than once I had considered the idea of crossing the Po country …. Many maintained that the Popas were cannibals. Others, more moderate in their opinions, left this question unsettled. But all united in affirming that anyone foreign to the Po tribes, who entered their country, was never seen again.


So I hesitated a little before risking this adventure, when the words of the general decided me – “Nobody has ever been there….” All right. I would see these ranges and these passes! Truly it would be “an interesting road to Lhasa”!

My Journey to Lhasa, p. 120 [Boston: Beacon Press, 1983]

She also could have a wicked sense of humor, and hated phonies:

Once, annoyed by the antics of the fakirs, she lay down on a vacant bed of nails. She explained to a passing British tourist that she needed a nap and was lucky to find a handy couch.

The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel, p. 59


I’ll mention one more person who seems to be possessed by travel, specifically in someone else’s footsteps. In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock is a photoblog showing how eastern Tibet looked in the 1920s and how the same places and people look now. Based on the explorations of Austrian-born botanist Dr. Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China from the 1920s to 1949, it’s written by Michael, who lives in Sydney, Australia. It’s worth a look.  


Joseph Rock


The lighter side ofpossession

It’s one thing to be moved by strong feelings or even obsessions, quite another to be moved by supernatural powers.

 Of course, demonic possession is a natural for “shocker” films, lending itself to over-the-top performances and neat tricks like head-spinning and demon-channeling. My favorite performance in this category is Vanessa Redgrave’s in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971).


    Since some of these films took themselves much too seriously, it was nice to see them lampooned from time to time in the favorite magazine of my youth, MAD ….    



(many thanks to Frankenstein’s Fun House on Flickr for the images – click on photo to visit)

Paris sera toujours….

Feeling nostalgic:  boulangerie, Paris 1980



I demand a recount

So, where do the visitors to my blog really come from? Recently, I claimed that my blog had been visited by 21 people from Reykjavik, Iceland. Then I started thinking: is that possible? Numbers can be misleading. Much of the data on is based on page loads, or even on internet queries. Maybe only one person happened to do 21 searches, or just happend upon my blog site multiple times. It kind of burst my bubble. I won’t worry about it too much, though. I can always count on some creative number-crunching from StatCounter, such as its claim that most of my “hits” one day came from England. Then when I looked at the hits by city, number one turned out to be London, Ontario. As in Canada. Is that a permissible error, or does StatCounter need a geography lesson?

I know you’re out there….

…because now I can see where you are. Is that cool, or what? I’ve had snippets of information over the past couple of years – an email here, a blog comment there – but now, thanks to, I can get daily pictures of where you are:




On Saturday afternoon, February 21, people from these countries were visiting me. What I don’t understand is the HUGE cluster of folks in the EU. Maybe it’s because most of the “traffic” to my blog comes from Google Images, so maybe they’re searching for photos of Chengdu.

As much as I love seeing myself all over the cyber-map, I also get more cool details, such as what country or city you come from.

I can understand 19 people from Chengdu, but 21 people from Reykjavik, Iceland? Farther down the list, I can start to guess who you are, in Tucson AZ (hi Kenton!) or in Los Angeles CA (is that you, Arturo?) In the middle of that European cluster is, of course, Gay Paree, where I can only hope that two of my fave Paris studs are looking at me, blog-ically speaking: is that you, David Lebovitz or brieuc75?

So, for the first time since I started this blog in 2005 (before teaching in China was even an idea), I have a counter. Goodness knows I’ve tried to install one in the past, but I could never manage to put the HTML code in the right place. As I love to tell my students, all of whom are technologically gifted, I am technologically challenged.* For example, when I was writing my most recent post, and cut and pasted word definitions from an online dictionary, I ended up in HTML Hell.

What would you do if you saw a tangled mess of codes and brackets? My solution was to KISS – that’s 12-step talk for Keep It Simple, Stupid. I took out the code and hand-typed all the information I needed to include. Then I decided to compose my blog (except for adding photos) in the HTML mode, where I can tell if any pesky code thingies are creeping in without my knowledge. A while back, Blogger went thru a period when it was very temperamental, changing line spacing, doing quirky little things, and making a nuisance of itself. Not only that, but during my first year in China, I couldn’t see my blog. I could post to it, but could only view it on occasion, when my proxy server worked (now the proxy server itself,, is blocked).

So, next time you visit me here, remember, I will see you.

Teacher anxiety

I seldom sleep well on Sunday nights. It’s a form of stage fright, anxiety about what will happen on Monday morning when I rise at 5:30 AM, do my last-minute preparation, and prepare to get on the bus at 7:20 to the new campus. I’m also drinking a LOT of coffee, which doesn’t help.

It can also be disconcerting when the first two weeks of class are the “cruising-for-teachers” period, during which time students can migrate from English class to English class and choose the foreign teacher who best suits them (do they really choose the one who has the easiest class?).

This morning I felt unprepared, as I always do on Mondays, but, even with only 4 hours sleep, I managed to thoroughly enjoy myself and, I think, teach a couple of effective classes. I came prepared with my arsenal: the DVD of Chaplin’s Modern Times, an old stand-by that the students always enjoy, my Kingston mobile storage device (to plug into the classroom computer), and that necessity in a class with no textbook or handouts, the PPT (PowerPoint presentation). Here’s a sample of my Week 1 presentation:

Today’s classes were about describing a personal memory – writing about it, talking about it with a partner, and then enlarging it. That means adding details, as any good writer or storyteller would. During my classes, I not only write on the board, but keep my notebook handy to constantly scribble notes to myself, as in this sketch of a graphic organizer or mind map:




I also drew the mind map on the board, then as an example, told the students about my initial experiences in China with culture shock – what it looked like, how it felt, what my memories were (that doesn’t mean the culture shock has stopped – it still continues). Then I had them look at their personal memory stories again, and add as much more detail as they could. I don’t know how effective it was, but one of the things I hear most often from my students is their difficulty in talking about ideas or feelings. Hence the suggestions for writing, speaking, and graphic organization.

The other thing that’s hard to do in the early classes is to judge what’s too easy or too difficult. I talked briefly about phrasal verbs today – combinations of a verb and one or two other words. I think the get expressions – get going, get up, get along, etc. – were too easy. In Class #2 I tried look expressions – look at, look into, look after, look around – then assigned one collocation to each pair of students to invent a situation or story.



Notes to myself: “Teaching Skills” or how to Be A Better Teacher:

Stop hurrying – don’t be worried that the students are bored or will tune me out;
It’s OK to take an idea and run with it – I guess that means go with the flow;
Relax more (difficult)
Don’t be intimidated by students – this is a self-confidence issue, and also means that I’m basically an introverted person, which means that being around people can be hard work for me, and emotionally draining. Still, the teacher sets the tone of the class, but Ss [students] must help.

Whew! This blog post has been a workout – my keyboard is smoking and my fingers are aching. Time to say goodbye until next time – and see you on the map!

* Speaking of technologically challenged, these people make me sound positively brilliant. Here are some stories excerpted from an article in the Wall Street Journal:

– A Dell technician advised a customer to put his troubled floppy back in the drive and close the door. The customer asked the tech to hold on, and was heard putting the phone down, getting up and crossing the room to close the door to his room.

– Another Dell customer called to say he couldn’t get his computer to fax anything. After 40 minutes of troubleshooting, the tech discovered the man was trying to fax a piece of paper by holding it in front of the monitor screen and hitting the “send” key.

– A confused caller to IBM was having troubles printing documents. He told the technician that the computer had said it “couldn’t find printer,” The user had tried turning the computer screen to face the printer, but that his computer still couldn’t “see” the printer.

Linguistically speaking

An archaeology of words: layers of posters on a New York wall, 1980
Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Show Me, from My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick LoeweA friend of mine once said of a woman we both particularly loathed: “Everything that goes through her brain comes out her mouth.” I may not seem like the type who harbors malice, but this woman truly had a case of verbal diarrhea [no, I won’tgive you the definition; it’s rather obvious if you think about it]If I ever start another blog, it’ll be called Talk to the Hand

I gotta hand it to you.
 Gimme a hand, will ya? 


Second-hand Rose.


Hand job [whoops – did I really say that?]

To be an old hand at something

You’re in good hands



If you want to know the meaning of these expressions, try the Urban Dictionary.


Then we can move down a notch: To have one’s finger in many pies, fickle finger of fate, etc. 

Since my students and I are now back in school, I feel an obligation to make my posts more, um, instructional. I inherited some of my grandmother’s love of words, so today I’m inspired by the book I’m currently reading: The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester. It’s the story of Joseph Needham, the scholar who authored the multi-volume Science and Civilization in China.

Simon Winchester also wrote one of my favorite books, The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

All right, class, are you ready? Our two words for today come from my current reading: peripatetic and phlegmatic. With a nod to Mr. Winchester, I’ll take my definitions from the Oxford English.


1. travelling from place to place.
2. working or based in a succession of places.

Derivatives: peripatetically (adverb)

Peripatetic is often linked with monks, many of whom have wandered far and wide in pursuit of wisdom or enlightenment. One of the more famous was Chinese monk Xuanzang who, in the seventh century AD, undertook an epic journey to India and back that lasted 18 years. His quest: to study Buddhist philosophy from the Indian masters and to retrieve sacred Mahayana Buddhist texts for the benefit of his homeland. His ultimate destination in India was Nalanda, an ancient Buddhist center of learning.


unemotional and stolidly calm

Derivatives: phlegmatically

The word derives from phlegm, and supposedly phlegmatic has to do with the phlegm humor (one of the moods). That’s about all I want to know about it.

The British are generally regarded as being phlegmatic: unemotional, taking it all in stride; Simon Winchester certainly describes them that way. I guess it’s part of their national character, along with the famous stiff upper lip.

So there you have two very different words, both of which occur in one book and, now, in one blog. If you want to earn some extra credit, here are a few more “p” words to research: perspicacious, persnickety, persimmon, and parsimonious.

What? You want to leave class early? Do I look like I’m finished talking? Did you hear that sorry-ass excuse for a bell yet? You put your behind in that chair and look like you’re halfway interested in learning a language. Just for that, you will take a pop quiz right this minute!


Good news

We’re here, we’re queer….


Same-sex partners Zhang Yi (L) and Hai Bei speak to the media at Qianmen street on Valentine’s Day in Beijing February 14, 2009. For some in Beijing’s gay and lesbian community, Valentine’s Day is not just a day to celebrate loving relationships, but also a time to campaign for acceptance of homosexuality in society. [Agencies]

For Valentine’s Day, the China Daily website [in English] carried a photo feature about same-sex partners in China, focusing on one lesbian and one gay couple in Beijing. I’m tickled pink to see more open coverage of gay issues in the Chinese press. Enforced invisibility can be one of the most cruel forms of prejudice, and there is a huge social stigma associated with being openly gay in conservative Chinese society.

The press may pay lip service to gay/lesbian issues, but I wonder how much real progress there has been in the past 3 years, since the government shut down first-ever gay and lesbian cultural festival in Beijing.


more: A Hidden Life: Being Gay in Rural China