Sunday, April 29, 2007

Language troubles - always one tone off

A foreign friend and I had some time to kill, so we headed into a tea house/restaurant. The place actually said “.Tea” in English on the outside. We ordered some food and TRIED to order some green tea. After all it was a tea house and we were in China where they serve you tea every time you sit down.

After many failed attempts to get the waitress to understand “Cha,” she finally left to get her supervisor. She kept saying “meiyou” meaning, don’t have any. We were so confused. Why would a tea house in China not have any tea? Fortunately the supervisor had a more lenient ear to tone deaf/mute westerners and understood what we wanted. After much dictionary rifling to see what the waitress thought we were ordering, we discovered that one tone off of “cha” (voice starting low and ending high) is “cha” with another tone….meaning western knife and fork.

You know you should be working harder at the language if you cannot manage to order tea in China!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Cutthroat English Industry

I have an English pimp. I apologize for the rather crude analogy, however, I found that I have something to sell here and a pimp is the best way to describe my boss. Her name is Ms. Jean and she refers to herself in the third person. In her broken English I often her, “Ms. Jean no like…” or, “Ms, Jean like…” She is old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution and how it stripped her once affluent family of its wealth, but young enough to have kept her contacts and business tactics. She would be a part of China’s nouveau riche except that she is really part of China’s revived riche. Like many entrepreneurial Chinese, Ms. Jean knows a market niche when she sees one.
If you didn’t know, or if you have forgotten, this school boasts an American style and American teachers. When you walk in the school are there are American flags at the entrance. All of the American teachers have framed portrait pictures in their classrooms which have been atrociously photo-shopped onto the background of a nearly florescent American flag. I have never looked so pasty white! All the better I assume. When the Chinese staff answers the office phone, they say, “Ni hao, Am-mer-ic,” meaning, “Hello, America.” Judging from conversations with my students, most intend on traveling in, studying in, and or living in America. Ms. Jean has powerful contacts everywhere and the school obviously acts as a middleman for obtaining the highly coveted American visa. This school seeks to employ only American teachers marketing to rich parents who believe that America is the be all end all for their single, priceless, treasured, and completely stressed out child.
In short, I am a blonde haired, blue eyed, American accent sputtering commodity. My value is high in China. Ms. Jean gets me my hours and I just look and sound American for the students, and much more importantly, the parents of the students.

This is not to completely discredit the school, or the work that I do there. I am indeed teaching English to those who are for the most part genuinely interested in learning. However, I have quickly observed that this is business first and an educational institution second.

Frustrations here have sent me searching for a new job. Hope to be done with this place mid June. The next update will give a full report on job searching in China, and my next move.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

English Names

It is common for Chinese to choose an “English name” at some point during their education. The origins of these names vary: the names of characters in the cheesy model dialogues in text books, western media, or some connection to the original Chinese name. Most names are common: Amanda, Charles, Ellen, Tina, Colin, Andy, etc. However, there are a few extraordinary names that deserve at least explanation and probably a laugh. While these are not all my students, some standouts include (in ascending peculiarity): Auto, Bank, Coco, Tiger, Dragon,Candy, Marx, Ice Snow, Ghost, Killer, Forever 25, Chest Hair, and Sea Sickness.

In addition to simply bizarre name choices, there are a few unfortunate names that, due to common pronunciation pit falls here, will always be mispronounced. For example, I have met a couple of women named Vivian. The Chinese trained mouth does not easily make the sound of “V.” Thus, “Wiwian” will unfortunately be repeated in at every English introduction.

I say forever, but actually my students seem to have few qualms about changing their English names. It is hard enough to learn the names of all these students, let alone when one kid in each class announces that he is trying out a new name today.

While I joke about these names, in reality they are extremely helpful to foreigners. While I have tried, I fail to remember Chinese names at this point in the game. This practice of taking English names is partly for education and participation in the English world, but also to save westerners’ butts. On the flip side, English names can complicate an international work place. That is, you may know you're student's or colleague's English name but no one else in the office knows it!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Xiao Chi

Street food and “Xiao Chi,” (snacks or little eats) is a favorite so far. There are certain back alleys that are packed after work and into the later evening. There you can find all kinds of meat kabobs (like on a stick), whole fish kabobs, chicken head kabobs, tofu of all kinds of colors, and fresh plump mushrooms all grilled over long narrow coal gills surrounded by people eating them as fast as they are cooked.

In these steaming teaming streets there things that stink, things that smell scrumptious, hot and spicy curry smells, sweet waffle/pancake smells, pickled things, dried things, steamed breads and buns, dumplings, fresh fruit, and things you assume will be sweet but rudely turn out salty. Always a sensory adventure!