Archive for the ‘Life In China’ Category

GaoKao always impresses me as being surreal.

June 5, 2013

The GaoKao is the Chinese university entrance examination. It’s a really intense experience for any kid who has any chance of doing (even remotely) well academically.

Put simply, the students do exams in Chinese, a foreign language (usually English it seems), Maths, Chemistry, Physics, and History over a 2 day period. This year it’s on Thursday 6th and Friday 7th of June, and the pressure on the kids is huge. The whole “One Child ” policy, combined with the fact that their lives won’t be that great if they don’t do well means they’re aware of the potential downside if they fail.

Our school is a host school for the GaoKao. This means that the students run round like crazy, trying to get the school in ship shape. The process is amusing to foreigners, because Chinese classrooms are a pigsty from about the third day of the year. The kids seem unwilling to use their lockers (the result is desks piled high with books -their heads poking up from behind them), and always smell of takeaways. In short, they’re a pigsty, and Western teachers hate how their Chinese counterparts let the kids treat the classroom. We run a constant running battle out make our rooms better (but after 9 years of “anything goes” it’s hard).

The preparation process involves the students removing every scrap of evidence that the room is a classroom (save the blackboards), nailing 2 nails into the wall (presumably for a clock, but I’m not sure, and I’m not sure why they have to do that every year), making the floors spotless, and having a man come round to check if the desks and chairs are stable, and are exactly 80cm apart (they seem to make rulers that length especially for GaoKao), and 20cm from the wall.

What gets my goat about that is if there’s even the slightest issue, the chair or desk is replaced. I wouldn’t mind but our parents pay 36x more than the parents of the “main school” kids (yes 36x more), and yet you can guarantee that our stuff won’t work, and trying to get it replaced requires a stubbornness about things that boarders on dogmatism.

On the day of the exam itself, the kids and staff are turfed out (noone’s allowed on site), the police block access to the road, cellphone masts are turned off (to prevent cheating) and parents congregate in areas round the school sending “Do well or you die” vibes to their children.

So all in all, the experience is strange, and the pressure intense. We had a child commit suicide our first year here, because of the pressure placed on him from pretty much everyone and his dog.

Funny comments I got at interview

April 27, 2013

Today was entrance examination day at my school. The school gets a few hundred applicants, they do a couple of papers in the morning, followed by an interview in the afternoons. I’ve just come back from the interviews. Here are my favourite comments I got back:

Q) Pick a number between 1 and 5…….?

A) 34

Q) Pick a number between 1 and 5…….?

A) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Q) Choose a number between 1 and 5…….?

A) 7

Q) Excluding China, which is your favourite country?

A) China

Q) Which is your favourite country?

A) Which country are you from?

Q) What is the longest journey you’ve ever taken?

A) Three Days.

Q) Where did you go?

A) Beijing

Q) Did you go by train or car?

A) No we flew

Q) And it took you 3 days to fly there?

A) Yes

Q) What is the most important thing in your life?

A) My life (I said “Yes your life,” assuming he wanted clarification, but his answer was life).

Q) What famous old customs do the Chinese have?

A) Basketball.

Q) How far from here do you live?

A) 34kg

Q) Do you really mean kg?

A) Yes

Q) You sure?

A) Yes really

Q) Have you ever read a book in English?

A) I have a book in English.

Q) What’s it called?

A) The dictionary

Q) What job does your mother do?

A) She’s the boss.

Q) What is she the boss of?

A) The company.

Q) What does the company do?

A) Business.

They may not be the funniest comments in the world, but they kept me amused.

Crazy Chinese Driving

April 21, 2013

One of the first things you’ll notice, pretty much as soon as you step out of an airport, ferry or train station is the driving (if it isn’t the spitting, dressing boys in pink, or large amounts of male on male adult physical contact -which I know is a cultural thing, but still wigs me out…..).

You learn pretty quickly not to look out of the drivers window, as it’ll almost immediately result in you having a coronary. This’ll occur because:

1) Your driver is doing 70mph in a 50mph zone.

2) He’s trying to fit his car into a space between two lorries that’s 2mm wider than the car.

3) He isn’t breaking, for those traffic lights, even though the tanker laden with petrol (or fireworks, or explosives) in front is.

4) He isn’t indicating.

5) A woman with no crash helmet is riding down the centre lane of a dual carriageway (in the opposite direction) with her 6 month old baby thrown over one shoulder, and 150lbs of cardboard over the other.

Equally, a lot of people learn not to look out of any window, because what’s going on around them is just as bad. Sadly, that’s not a skill I’m able to learn I don’t think. I need to know where I’m, going, for my own peace of mind.

Anyway, I .said all that to say this. I caught a taxi from the city centre to where I live, and in 45 minutes, he sounded his horn 83 times. That has to be a record. I’d understand it if he was taking me home in the the middle of the day, but he wasn’t. It was approaching midnight, and for the vast majority of the journey, there was no one about.

Chinese vs. Western Medicine

March 17, 2013

One of the things I find infuriating is the Chinese insistence that Chinese Medicine is best, even when it patently isn’t. I’m going to set aside the whole “period pain issue” (girls here seem to think it’s virtuous to suffer without painkillers) because I’m, well, a guy, and getting into that just feels weird on a bunch of different levels.

Anyhow, returning to the main focus of this entry, I had a pop at a kid who skipped a class because he had a headache. Now I get migraines when I get stressed. They can be blinding, and always involve me “up-chucking” eventually (I earned a degree of astonished admiration from the kids at my first school by vomiting in class, and continuing with the lesson), so I asked if he had one of those.

No, he said, he didn’t. So, I countered, why didn’t you take an aspirin get yourself to school (I’m sorry, but I come from the well you’re not dead yet so get your bum to work school of thinking)? Well, he replied, “I took Chinese Medicine for the headache.” This is where my head started hurting. It always does when I have conversations like this, because I know I’m going to come up against some crazy-ass Chinese logic, which makes no sense. The rest of the conversation went like this:

“So why didn’t you come in to school after taking the Chinese medicine?”

“I was waiting for my headache to clear.”

“How long did that take?”

“12 hours.” (I’m really not kidding, he really did tell me 12 hours)

“Have you heard of aspirin?” (which I found out was pronounced asPEErin here, but that’s a whole other story)


“Have you ever taken it?”


“Did you have some?”


“How long does that take to clear you headaches?”

“2 hours”

“So why didn’t you take that?”

“Chinese Medicine is better.”

“How do you come to that conclusion?”

So we had a discussion about “evidence based medicine”, which was pretty well timed, because I was at that point of the curriculum anyway.

What I don’t understand is this dedication to a crazy idea, in the face of the evidence to the contrary. This kid know how we made aspirin, knew that it was stronger and more effective, and still chose Chinese medicine.

Incidentally, for those who think I was being a hard-arse, maybe I was, but he’s never been absent from my lesson, and he’s got the potential to better in the subject he missed. Equally, he swore up and down he wasn’t just skiving. This is China, he he couldn’t lie well if his life depended on it.

Life in China

March 11, 2013

One of the things that worried me about coming to work in China was the whole political situation here. I had visions of the “Great Firewall”, and wondered how far they’d progressed from Mao suits, waving the “Little Red Book”, bicycles, and clamping down on Tibetans.

Well, the thing is, I probably worried to much. China is backward in many ways. The paperwork (or more accurately the randomness with which it will appear) will make you think “Remind me again why I have to do it for that?” The hideous over-staffing is remarkable (they have people to tell you where to park your bikes, when people cope on their own, no problem). If they were efficient, China would be scary, trust me on thatBut they aren’t.

China is a paternalistic, top down, society. It’s not communist. Trust me on that. It just isn’t. Paternalistic? Yes. Paper hungry? Totally. Determined to know what you’re up to? Absolutely. But I’ve never been worried about what “the people in charge” think of me. Asking them to explain stuff gives me a good idea where they’re coming from, and saying “So tell me about…..?” is a good way to get people (even adults) thinking about issues.

The other thing they respond to is being open, and balanced, about stuff in your country of origin. I’ve had students ask me what people thought about Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, The difference between British and American government, what the difference between Christians and Catholics where, and why the Puritans left England. If you give them honest answers, they’ll respect you for it, and respond when you ask about China.

A surreal conversation here in China

March 3, 2013

One of the things I’m probably most embarrassed about, when it comes to my life in China, is my lack of language skills. I’ve got maybe 10/20 words, and I get by with that, and a lot of pointing. Given I’ve been here almost 3 years, it’s not good. I could defend myself by saying that I’m a visual learner, and that I have no chance of grasping the script, but let’s face it, that’s bunk.

Anyhow I was in the bank today (yes banks in China are open Sundays) to pay my electricity bill (£6 or $10 for the month for those of you who care). I was queuing up when I had a conversation with what the Americans might call a “greeter” that saved me 10 minutes in line. It went like this (with English translations afterwards):

“No card, no card” (You do know sir that if you have an ATM card, you can pay you bill electronically).

“Yes card, yes card” (Interestingly enough I think I have the card I need).

“Card, Card?” (You have an ATM card?)

“Card, Card” (Is this the card I need?)

“Card, Card.” (Yes that is the right card. If you’ll follow me).

“Card, Card” (Good but I can’r read Chinese).

“Number Number” (Put your card in the slot).

“Number Number?” (Do I put my PIN number in?)

“Number Number.” (Yes then I’ll press some buttons)

“Number Number?” (So I enter my Account Number now?)

“Number Number.” (Yes)

“Green Green.” (That button tells the machine you want to pay your bill if the amount is correct).

“Card Card?” (How do I get my card back now I’ve paid my bill?)

“Card Card.” (Press that button)

“Shi Shi.” (Thank you).

“Bye Bye”

A question of overly tight leadership control?

January 4, 2013

Ok, so I’m the Head of Science where I work. I wish I could say that makes me important in some way, but it doesn’t. I suspect more that it’s more a matter of being a cheerleader for the subject, supporting staff, doing the paperwork, and knowing that the buck’s going to stop somewhere near me if anything “blows up.”

Anyhow, the firm’s training me up to get some further “management responsibilities” (hopefully I’ll be climbing the greasy pole of management sometime soon), and asked me to research something at my school, which I did. It wasn’t anything serious, I wasn’t plotting villainous world domination, just trying to find out how students are assessed before they arrive at the school.

The Chinese response seems to be mistrust and unwillingness to relinquish any data, fearing it’ll result in a loss of control. I asked one person about the data, and was told one thing. When, in about 30 minutes, I disproved what he’s said, he told me something else.

That is something I’ll never understand about this place. I’m not dangerous, I’m no threat. If you speak to anyone, you’ll find out I’ve got the kids best interests at heart. They might find the students more boisterous than is usual in a Chinese classroom, but my results are good, and when I’m observed, I’m described as “highly effective.” So why keep menial pieces of data from me?

I’m told it’s the “Chinese Way,” that that’s what the Chinese do, that they view data as “means of control,” but it’s actions like that that are almost bound to make me come over all “dog with a bone” if the data seems innocuous.

A Chinese student’s ear for English

January 3, 2013

Teaching in China is interesting. The kids, in the main are good, motivated kids, who want to do well and succeed in the future, and that makes our job easier when it comes to presenting content.

One of the things I’ve noticed, however, is the kids ear for what I call idiomatic English. To my mind, it separates the good linguists from those that try. With the new kids at school, you learn quickly that you have to speak in short simple sentences when you speak. The Chinese have really good English, but it’s obtained by drill and rote learning. As a result, they know the words, but don’t have what I call that “fingertip feel for the language” (which isn’t all that surprising when you think about it).

By the time they’re about to graduate (or come back to visit the school), you hope you can build more complex sentence structures with them, along with a love of language. They’re going to spend the next 4 years abroad, so you hope they’re getting a love for the language.

My favourite example of what I’m talking about is the question “How’s it going?” To me, that separates the really good linguists from the rest. Ask a lot of people that here, and I promise you’ll get “To the…..” as an answer. I know they heard what I said, but they seem to translate the question as “Where are you going?” I ask that question a lot as one of my indicators of how strong their English is. That allows me to adjust my English accordingly.

I’ve had a really good accurate answer to that question 4 times now, and I ask it a lot. That probably tells me that our English department probably need to work on that sort of thing.

An interesting comment from a student

December 30, 2012

One of the things I’ve got to teach at the moment is DNA in my Senior Year class, and I had the students brainstorm what they knew about DNA. It was this that caused the interesting student comments.

First the students in China seem to think they are descended from Homo Erectus, which startled me when I heard it a couple of years ago. I’m not sure if the idea came from a particular bad teacher, or if it’s general across Chinese students, but that idea is there.

This lead to an interesting digression into “reliability of evidence.” They’ve been told the evidence is there by Historians (not necessarily the best explainers of biology), so we had a discussion about the reliability of evidence for a while.

The other thing that surprised me is that Chinese have no idea of their boarders. I was explaining that one route that early man might have gained access to China was through India. They were convinced that China shouldn’t have a boarder with India. Not that the boarder is in the wrong place, but that if India ceded it’s claim, they wouldn’t have a boarder at all. I ended up having to pull up a map to prove them wrong,

No offence to the Chinese, but they can be weird sometimes.