a tangled web


The semester officially ended for me on Friday after the Closing Ceremony at the Intensive Language Training Center. Since none of my own students were there, I felt a little redundant, as if I were just for display purposes. It’s been a long time since anyone thought of me as “decorative,” so maybe I should be grateful.

The day before, I’d spent 3 hours helping to administer final oral exams to the students in the Going Abroad program – teachers and post-grad students who will be sponsored by the China Scholarship Council to do research in English-speaking countries.

Yesterday (Saturday) I attended the 百日 “bai ri” or 100 Days party for my “niece” Cristina Garzon, daughter of two friends at my former school. I didn’t stay for all the festivities, which lasted from lunch through the afternoon all the way through dinner. It’s a Chinese custom to celebrate the first 100 days of a baby’s life with a grand fete.

So what will I do with my 7 weeks of (paid) vacation? Hard to say. I will continue my Chinese classes up until Spring Festival the 2nd week in February. Next Friday I’ll begin classical guitar lessons with a teacher who lives not far away. The communication may be a bit strained – he speaks no English – but I may study along with another student who does know English.

I may watch some movies, but at the moment I’m a little “movied out;” it’s my preferred form of relaxation, plus I made my way thru 6 seasons of “The Sopranos” in about 4 weeks. Do I see an addictive pattern forming here?

Happy New Year.

December 11

leafy walk


Yesterday was my birthday. I was in class much of the day, and for some reason I was incredibly stressed out. Classes went fine; in fact, a couple were much better than usual. In my afternoon class the four students actually stayed for the whole 2-hour period, and spoke English virtually the entire time.

In the evening I gave the final exam to my Business English Class, employees of a local Chengdu pharmaceutical company. This morning at 9 am I received an emergency call from the teaching department, saying that they had to have the scores by 9:30. I said that it was impossible; it’ll take me a whole day to grade the exams. We later compromised when I promised that all of the students will pass the course. I know from past experince that final scores are merely a formality; the students all receive a certificate of completion anyway. However, many companies ensure good performance in class by requiring employees who score too low to pay a penalty of up to 10,000 yuan.

Anyway, this afternoon I’ll visit the company with the other teachers to take part in the awards ceremony, then we’ll attend dinner afterward. My birthday celebration will wait until tomorrow.

Vocabulary lesson

The hazards of teaching:

I’m always correcting my students’ pronunciation when it comes to the similar words “snack” and “snake,” as in “We ate some food at the snake bar.”

Yesterday during the class break, as I was on the school balcony enjoying some “fresh” air, one of my students said, “Roger, our other teacher brought snake today!”

I said something to the effect of “Oh, well that’s great – did he give you some food in class?”

At that moment another student appeared, carrying a clear plastic box that contained – you guessed it – a real SNAKE. Yipes.

I learned my lesson. Believe it….or not.

American culture lesson for Sunday, October 18

After my post on Friday about sampling Puer Tea, it occurred to me that I should have explained my reference to settling for the “farm” after you’ve seen “Paree.”

The reference was to a World-War I-era song about soldiers returning to normal life after seeing combat in foreign countries. Would you be able to keep them on the farm after they’d tasted the delights of Paris, even in the midst of wartime violence? Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

For Me And My Gal : The Musical
(Words by : Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young / Music by : Walter Donaldson)

Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking
Said his wifey dear
Now that all is peaceful and calm [after the war]
The boys will soon be back on the farm [home again in the U.S.]
Mister Reuben started winking and slowly rubbed his chin
He pulled his chair up close to mother
And he asked her with a grin

How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’ [Paris, France]
How ya gonna keep ’em away from Broadway [bright lights, big city]
Jazzin’around and paintin’ the town [“whooping it up” – having fun]
How ya gonna keep ’em away from harm, that’s a mystery [“harm” = temptation]
They’ll never want to see a rake or a plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow? [“parlez-vous” – how can you speak French to a cow?]
How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm
After they’ve seen Paree’


Note: instead of “Broadway” (which is in New York, NOT Paris), one version says “Likker” (liquor – booze), which makes more sense.

And that’s the truth.

An awakening


It was a miracle. The Class from Hell, the hopeless ones, the ones who could only sink, not swim, opened up and showed some life today. Was it me, or was it the lesson plans I found online and in “The Confidence Book” (building trust in the language classroom)?

These were the terminally bored, the catatonic students who sometimes couldn’t even grunt a response. The ones who took up space in my head and even during my days off left me angry and resentful and fuming. The most catatonic – let’s call him, um, “Beckett” – showed acting skills and vocal pyrotechnics that I didn’t think could possibly be hidden inside.

It was easy, really (isn’t it always?). We used this simple dialogue:

A: Yes.
B: No.
A: Yes.
B: No.

After giving it a “natural” reading, student pairs are asked to vary their speaking / tone of voice to suit the following situations: 1) two friends arguing over who pays the restaurant bill; 2) trying to convince your diet-conscious friend to eat a chocolate bar; 3) a father talking to his angry 3-year-old child.

Then we worked with the sentence: “How are you today?” This time we added these tones of voice: sarcastic, resentful, angry, respectful, and “baby talk.” I told the students (4 young men, even though the class list has 21 names on it) to get out their cell phones. They then recorded their voices (and mine) and played them back on their phones. We laughed and made fun of each other, but we also l-e-a-r-n-e-d (I have to spell the word; I’m afraid to say it).

The class remained interesting, and the students stayed awake and in the room. We worked on stress and intonation, gave dramatic readings, and listened to 2 students have a conversation, then tried to reconstruct it from memory (not easy).

In the end, I felt like I’d had a “To Sir, with Love” experience. Or maybe I was Sandy Dennis in “Up the Down Staircase.” Whatever. It worked.