Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Granted it's not even eleven o'clock and I probably shouldn't be sleeping yet, but with my early class schedule each morning, I've been trying to go to bed by ten or a little after each night. Generally, I get up around six thirty with the intention of finishing the homework I didn't do the day before. It's been awhile since I've been on such a regimented schedule. Anyway, I can't seem to fall asleep so I thought I would blog a bit. There's not a lot to say so I apologize if everything sounds mundane; it pretty much is...

We've found ourselves recently addicted to watching 80 minutes of The Office each evening after dinner. It's taking away from our study time (which proves brutal in the mornings when we're tested over the things we were supposed to be working on the night before), but Canadian research shows that relaxing by watching The Office before studying can greatly improve the absorption rate of the material studied, or so we like to tell ourselves.

Last Saturday evening most, or maybe all, of the students at Keats Language School were taken to a nice restaurant for dinner (care of Keats herself). The students here have varied backgrounds, as one might expect, and come from many different parts of the world. The dinner was quite enjoyable as it's been awhile since we've socialized with other non-Chinese people. Since that dinner, however, we seldom run into the ones we conversed with that evening, with the exception of Susanna, a girl from Canada who is ever ready to provide us with the latest research in learning methods (hence, the aforementioned The Office statement).

It was hard for me to get into studying this week. Monday was killer, and Tuesday took some serious pep talks to get me focusing. Today went well, though, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow's class. There are twelve lessons in my textbook, and Huang Laoshi seems confident that we'll get through them all. We're averaging about one lesson every two days. By the end of this month, I think we'll have crammed an entire semester's worth of material into four weeks (or less, actually, because we're meeting six days a week instead of five). My reading and writing of Chinese have both improved dramatically, but my grammar and oral Chinese are pathetic at best.

Huang Laoshi has been great. She's really patient with me and seems to know what she's doing. She does have these little quirks, however, that make me understand what it must be like to be a Chinese student. Nearly every day she corrects something about the way I do certain things which are seemingly (at least to me) insignificant. For example, in the last week and a half, she has repeatedly forced me to place my writing tablet perpendicular to my body (rather than slanting it at a forty five degree angle which provides a more natural writing position for my hand). She also has corrected the way I write my "4"s, my "t"s, my "F"s and has told me that I recently picked up the bad habit of putting my head too close to my paper when I write. I didn't tell her that I've had that habit all my life. She probably would have replied that this is the reason I'm wearing glasses today. Nevertheless, I appreciate her attention and dedication to instilling in me the "best" way to do things (whether I agree with these ways or not). I merely hope that when I leave, I will take away what I learned about Chinese and not what she tried to change about my performance techniques.

Well, I should probably try to get some sleep. I've got another fun day of learning ahead of me!

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Brian, William and I arrived in Kunming last Sunday morning. We were greeted at Keats Language School by Keats herself (not her real name) and shown our accommodations. We all live on the fifteenth floor (each in our own little dorm room which includes a comfy bed, desk, TV, refrigerator, bathroom and hot water all day long). After we were shown our rooms, we were taken to a nearby restaurant to eat "across the bridge" noodles, a famous Kunming dish. When you order these noodles, you are brought a huge bowl of hot chicken broth, a bowl of noodles and a plate of raw meats, vegetables, and a quail egg. The chicken broth is so hot that it cooks the other ingredients when they are added to it. It's pretty good. After brunch we returned to our rooms to unpack and rest before meeting our teachers.

After meeting our teachers, they took us to the local Carrefour to buy some food stuffs for the week. There was a small foreign foods section so we were able to buy cheese, salsa, cereal and real milk (well, milk more like we're used to anyway). I know it's only been a week, but I'm not sure what we did in the afternoon/evening of Sunday.

Monday morning class began at 8:30. My teacher wanted to start with learning Pinyin (which I already know) and doing very basic things. By the end of the four hours, we had moved quite a ways ahead from where we began. Every day we have class for four hours in the morning with a fifteen minute break at some point. On the first day of class, I came back from my break, and my teacher, Ao Dan, was very serious and asked if she could admit something to me. I said, "Sure!" Turns out, she really didn't want to stay and teach. She was homesick (she's young, still a college student) and really wanted to go home for the break. She told Keats about this, but Keats told her it was impossible for her to abandon me, and that she would just have to finish teaching. So after awhile, I realized what Ao Dan wanted from me was to tell Keats that she just wasn't going to work out and that I would like to change teachers. Apparently, that was the only way she could be released from her responsibilities. So, on that first day, after class I asked Keats for another teacher. I felt like a jerk because I've never acted unsatisfied about anything or anyone before, but it was the only way that Ao Dan could go home, and she needed to.

Tuesday: Tuesday my studies really began. Keats gave me a really professional instructor. Huang Laoshi (Teacher Huang) speaks mostly Chinese to me (whereas, Ao Dan spoke mostly English), and she's very strict. Well, she's strict, but she's also very patient and kind. She's currently working on her Master's Degree, I think. She's 27, married and has a child. I know she's not much older than me, but it certainly feels like she is.

Daily Schedule (our lives are strictly regimented so here's the rundown):
6:30 - 8:00 ~ Study Chinese, quiet devotional, breakfast
8:10 - 12:10 ~ One-on-one study with Huang Laoshi
12:30 - 1:30 ~ Lunch with the boys (We usually try to eat near the school. There's a huge concentration of Lonely Planet approved Chinese and Western restaurants in our area. We actually prefer the cheap, dirty places but have only found a few of them thus far.)
1:30 - 2:30 ~ Watch an episode of "Band of Brothers" (William brought the series with him, and it's proven to be the daily relaxation method of choice for us.)
2:30 - 6:30 ~ Good Good Study, Day Day Up (A Chinese saying that we use to remind ourselves to study hard. Those four hours for me are generally spent doing homework exercises, writing Chinese characters, and trying to memorize a grotesque amount of words.)
6:30 - 8:00 ~ Go for a walk, get lost, find a place to eat, and then come back
8:00 - 10:00 ~ Study
10:00 ~ Bed and sweet, sweet rest

We seldom stray from this schedule. The days go by pretty quickly. I don't feel like I'm getting enough study time in even though I'm spending upwards of nine or ten hours looking over the material. Crazy!


Yesterday we found out that instead of studying five days a week and having two days for the weekend, we would also have class on Saturday. If we didn't, then we would have class on Spring Festival, and our teachers wouldn't be able to spend that day at home with their families. It's equivalent of making us work on Christmas so we aren't complaining about it.


Today after class, the boys and I agreed to reward our hard work with a day of splurging. I don't think we prepared ourselves for what we would encounter. We took a taxi to the Green Lake Park, got lost while trying to find our way out, and then finally emerged near one of Kunming's universities. We found the street that we wanted (we were in search of a coffee house named Salvador's) and walked down "Western Alley". I haven't seen so many international food and clothing shops since I was home this summer. There was a French bakery shop, a Prague cafe, countless coffee shops, and Thai and Indian restaurants. We found Salvador's with little trouble. It's a quaint little place packed full of foreigners. We found a nice spot in the loft and ordered our heart's out (i.e., quesadillas, coffee, and dessert in the form of sugar covered in sugar with sugar sprinkled on top).

Quite satisfied, we left in search of the university book store. We found a Mandarin bookstore instead and bought a few bilingual books. Now that we're learning to read characters, we need some books for practice. We then found a DVD shop with the complete seasons of every show from Doogie Howser to The Office to Seinfeld. Brian bought The Office which I'm happy about because I'm apparently way out of the loop having never seen an episode.

While the boys were buying their DVDs, I spotted a shop across the street which looked a little different than the rest. I was pretty sure it was an import store. As soon as I walked in, I was overwhelmed by things like Smuckers' jam, Airheads, jellybeans, and Bubbalicious. I was so much in my own world that when William yelled, "A&W!", it took a good ten seconds to process what he was saying. We found A&W root beer and cream soda, Dr. Pepper, and Mt. Dew. They had so many things that we just can't find anywhere. It was overwhelming. We were in a daze, but when when the clerk said there was an upstairs too, it didn't take long for William to bolt up the stairs. There we found Pop Tarts, cereal, and several other things that I can't recall. At this point, I was beginning to feel a little sick, and we left pretty quickly after that. It's hard to explain just what we were feeling, but within the span of three hours (beginning with Salvador's continuing through the bookstore and ending with the import store), I nearly cried from joy (or something) several times. Maybe it was just from spending six days straight studying a language so foreign from my own and then immersing myself so completely into something absolutely familiar.

We returned to our school after that to rest before joining the other students tonight for dinner. We're supposed to meet up at six to go out. Tomorrow is our day off, but I think we'll spend it studying since we didn't study today. I have to write a journal entry about what we did today (in Chinese!) and memorize tons of words (their meaning and how to write them) so I've got a lot to do tomorrow.

But our first week is finished.

Monday, January 07, 2008


Call it a conspiracy. Call it a coincidence. Call it what you will, but there's a strange something (my students would call it a phenomenon, meaning something unexplainable that happens quite often) that keeps occurring, and I wish to share it with all my faithful blog readers.

I can't recall the first time it happened. Maybe it happened several times before I really noticed it. Who can say? Regardless, I'd like to start by introducing our local guard station and our faithful Pee Wee. After entering the alley that leads to our campus and walking past the outdoor food market and past several local restaurants (like Happy Guys), you come to a guard station which, as I understand, is the official entrance from this particular road into our school. It's not much of a station. There's a small, glassed-in building, large enough for one person to sit and watch passersby while fulfilling his most important role of raising the crossing arm for what little traffic passes through. During the day, the crossing arm remains up, and the guard usually just stands outside watching people walk by.

Last year there was one guard in particular who had the look of an eight year old little boy playing dress up in his father's uniform. He also carried a strong resemblance to Pee Wee Herman and thus became known as Pee Wee. Since we walk past the guards several times a day, we like to create a friendly rapport with them. Generally, this merely includes a little head nod and a "ni hao". But with Pee Wee, it was different. We broke through any and all barriers that might have existed between us and developed a much deeper and more open relationship with him. As this was last year, Derek was still here, and he often joked with Pee Wee as he passed by, saying, "Hello, Pee Wee. Tomorrow I will steal your hat." For some reason, Derek's dream was to take the hat off of Pee Wee's head and to run away with it. This occurred daily for weeks, and Pee Wee always laughed, and everyone was jovial. Then, suddenly and with no explanation, Pee Wee disappeared! No more Pee Wee greeting us gleefully as we passed by. We assumed his dismissal was a result of the amount of time he spent in the guard station singing into the phone serenading, we presumed, his girlfriend. Or maybe he just didn't have that reserved guard look the higher ups were going for. Regardless, we missed him.

One day several weeks later as I was passing by the guard station, I looked up and Pee Wee had returned! I asked him where he'd been all my life, uh, I mean, in the past few weeks, and he said he had been moved to another station. My joy at his return was short-lived, however, and that was the last time I ever saw Pee Wee.

Oh, Fei Fei, yet another beloved figure in our daily lives. Fei Fei was a little kid, maybe two or three or eight years old, who quite frequently spoke to us as we passed by his parents' little convenience shop located about ten feet from the guard station. Fei Fei was playful, cute and talented (the kid could balance on the edge of a trash can and relieve himself while shouting "hellos" at us as we tried to avoid eye contact in an effort to not impose on this otherwise private business). A few months later at the peak of our relationship with Fei Fei, we walked up the alley one day to discover Fei Fei's parents' store empty and demolished (making way for a future iron bowl restaurant and another convenience store). Fei Fei and his family were gone too, along with Fei Fei's happy "hellos".

Is it a coincidence that the people we get close to disappear suddenly and without explanation?

This semester we again befriended the new guards. There are two in particular that we like. One is Handsome Guard who was clearly named by Jessica and me, though I haven't heard Brian object, and the other doesn't have a name, an unnoticed detail which is soon to be dealt with. They're really gentle men, and they always smile and nod their head at us as we pass.

For Thanksgiving this year we made several small loaves of banana bread to give to some of the people we come into contact with on a daily basis (the fruit ladies, the rice man and his wife, juice lady and underwear king, Happy Guy and his family, the Muslim noodle folks, and the two guards). We added a little note in English with a Chinese translation that said how grateful we are for them and that we thank God for how they make our lives in China easier and nicer. When we delivered these little tokens of gratitude, the guard on duty was Handsome Guard. He, like all the rest of our friends, at first refused the bread, but when our Chinese friends explained the meaning behind it, he placed it on his little desk, gave us his dreamy smile, and we left. The next day (seriously), he was gone, and we haven't seen him since.

Here is the irony: I was never able to give the other guard his banana bread (even though we made him a loaf) because we left that night for Wuhan, and he wasn't on duty that whole day. So the guard whom we have yet to name and who did not receive the small gift from us is still employed at the guard station, but the guard whom we did name and who did receive the small gift from us has not been heard from since that fateful day in November.

Is it a conspiracy that those we get close to suddenly and quite dramatically disappear?

Just a few days ago Brian, Jessica and I were walking to Happy Guys for lunch when a group of children ran past us. Among them was Fei Fei! Although he had not aged in the eight months since we've seen him, there was no mistaking his face and exuberant manner. Speechless, I made weird noises to get Brian's attention and then yelled, "Fei Fei", and pointed in the kid's direction. Brian was able to confirm the sighting just before Fei Fei disappeared around a corner. We haven't seen Fei Fei since that unexpected day, but I'm now filled with great hope that one day we will again encounter Pee Wee and Handsome Guard.

As it's "Jovial January" and I'm avoiding negative thoughts, I'll leave you to your own interpretation of these events that may or may not include an evil mastermind named Mr. V (pronounced WE) determined to destroy us foreigners with his impressive and unlimited arsenal of Chinglish.

Friday, January 04, 2008


Christmas is over and while this tends to be the highlight of most people's year, I hope no one will mind if I glaze over details and do a quick run through of our "Shiyan Christmas".

Generally speaking, we do a GREAT job of bringing the Christmas festivities and traditions from home into our lives in China. The only powers working against us are our schools and the city. Both seem intent on making us celebrate Christmas their way. On the Saturday before Christmas, we attended the city-wide Christmas party. Having made it clear that we don't care to perform any song and dance routines (and having been told our style isn't quite Chinese enough to be adequate for such a special occasion), the school no longer requires anything of us except our attendance. There were several performances - mostly younger children singing, dancing or playing instruments, but a few foreigners in town decided to do their own acts. Shortly into the performances, Bena, an African woman who teaches at William and Priscilla's school, asked us if we would join her in singing "O Holy Night". We can't say no to Bena; she's such a beautiful character. Five minutes later Brian, Jessica, Darla and I were on stage with Bena who is blessed with an incredibly powerful and off-key voice singing the worst rendition of "O Holy Night" that, I would venture to say, has ever been sung. A few days later a call from our friend Zoe confirmed our worst nightmare - the local news station had retrieved footage of our song and was broadcasting it for all to hear! But the city-wide party as a whole was enjoyable enough, and we all received mugs as a parting gift.

Christmas Eve we were asked to go to our school's annual foreign language department Christmas dinner. We were late (also an annual tradition), but it didn't matter because we were given our own private room (while the rest of the Chinese members of the foreign language department were all congregated together in a larger room). It's only mildly offensive to not be included with the rest of department, and since we avoided all the drunken toasts and awkward conversations, it worked out for the best.

Afterwards Brian, Jessica and I came back home to celebrate a quiet Christmas Eve. William came over and we watched "How Santa Clause Conquered the Martians", a gift from my brother and his wife which had fortuitously arrived earlier that day. The movie was perfectly terrible.

In the morning, Jessica, Darla and I cooked a breakfast of cinnamon rolls and quiche. All the single Shiyaners, Shiyanites, Shiyanren (whichever we are) had a very merry stocking stuffer Christmas morning in Jessica's apartment. We really just killed time the rest of the day until the first annual Tacky Sweater Progressive Dinner Celebration began around four thirty. In true western fashion, we completely stuffed ourselves on real food before gorging ourselves with dessert. It was a nice Christmas. For more details, please see Brian's blog at or Jessica's at

Yichang was the place to be for New Year's Eve. Having the great desire to spend this time with our Yichang (Beth, Amy, Brad, Katie, Kim) and Wuhan (Danielle, Carole, Rachel, Jeremy, Laurie, Megan) pals yet the need to be in Shiyan after being gone so much in the month previous, we decided to leave for Yichang Monday morning (arrived early afternoon) and return the following day (left early afternoon). It's a seven hour bus/train ride...

The Yichang folks do New Year's right (are becoming locally famous for it in fact), and we started the fun with a video scavenger hunt. We had three teams of four people (my team consisted of Brian, Beth, Carole and me) and two hours to shoot several films (a western, a kung fu, a Titanic), video various things (dancing in the square, pushing to get on the bus, singing "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes" with some Chinese people) and take pictures at specific locations (the bridge, by "Da Shan's" picture, in the international hotel). There were a lot of items, and I'd like to point out that my team was the only one to complete the entire list (even if the split pants baby was a bit of a flop).

We ate dinner at Pizza Hut, a place that some of you who read this are probably taking for granted! Then we retreated to Kim and Katie's place for snacks and to hang out till the New Year. Last year Brad created the "apple on the chopstick" drop to bring in the new year, and they spruced it up a bit this year by placing some sparklers into the apple which bore the Chinese character "fu" (meaning luck or something similar). It was pretty exciting for some reason that escapes me.

After the New Year's salutations died down, we all gathered in the living room and sang praises to our God. It was so powerful to be reminded of the great year we were given and to be encouraged to use this new year in service to Him.

Our winter break is beginning. In one week, we will all be moving in different directions (some for traveling, some for studying, some for going home). Brian, William and I leave next week for Kunming to study Chinese for one month. It will be strange to be a student again. I'm excited about the opportunity, though. Most of us will be gone for about a month or so.

Oh, Jovial January - the newest of our alliterated months. During this month, we are not allowed to say anything bad about anyone, a task proving very difficult at times. If we say something bad, we are not allowed to eat anything sweet for the rest of the day (since bitterness leaves our mouth, we will not be allowed to put sweets into it). Sadly, we failed the very first day, but we've been doing much better since.