Monthly Archives: March 2016

March March March

China mapI’ve been back in Tianjin for three weeks now, my jet lag finally evaporating.

The graduate school modified our class schedule. The old campus classes moved from Thursdays to Mondays, while the new campus classes remained on Wednesdays. Thus, a day of rest bloomed between them.  And believe me, that day of rest significantly lightens everybody’s mood.

More importantly, the weekly expedition out to the new campus gulag is easier to recover from when it’s no longer first, but second in the week.

Section 157Room assignments at the new campus also changed. The new locations contain normal rectangular desks (seen in this picture), which fit together in normal rows and columns, so other teachers won’t scramble them so utterly in our absence. And my new classroom is located on the first floor – a welcome change from the top floor in a new building without elevators.  Yeah, they call it a “green campus” that saves energy.

Oh, and one additional welcome change – a new express bus.

The bus routes down to the new campus were inaugurated last September. The express bus (85¢ US) could make it in 40 minutes, and the local stop bus (50¢ US) took just under an hour. But that’s without traffic, which can stretch either of those trips out to an hour and a half or longer. The same physical buses plied each route, but as of this month – no longer.

BusesCan you guess which one is the express bus in the picture? Hint: it’s the big one with the line of passengers waiting. It has plush tour-bus seating and a better heater, while retaining the classic side door in the middle for easy exits.

And according to my friend Jeanne, it also features an annoying voice that constantly admonishes the driver whenever s/he goes to slow or too fast. Seated in the back, I’ve not heard it, though perhaps my bus’s driver figured a way to destroy it. Yeah, it’s pretty bad when the vehicle itself is a back-seat driver.

If they wanted to have such a special bus as an express, why wasn’t it ready on  the first day of the route?  Because that’s the way things work here. You never over-prepare. When the routes were announced mere weeks before they were to start running, then they started thinking about what kind of bus. By that time, the only expedient left was to press any old equipment into service and go for it.  And believe me, that first load of hardware featured transmissions ready to fall from their sockets.   Only when the new routes were a going concern did they get the new buses.

Well, they hadn’t posted the schedule or specifics about the route right away, either. Information is currency in this society. You don’t toss it around willy-nilly.

Pollution Indicators

Pollution continues unabated, billowing through town in swollen waves. However, I now know that the air filters within my apartment do their job.  My mother’s Christmas gift was a “laser egg,” a product only available in China, which can only be purchased through WeChat payments. It’s a portable pollution measuring device.

Laser EggThe picture shows it sitting in front of my computer screen at home last Sunday. The pollution index was 453, hazardous to man and beast.  Yet within my apartment, the laser egg measured just 40, a value that would even be acceptable in the Bay Area.  It’s quite a remarkable number, considering how poorly these drafty apartments are sealed.

Interestingly, by Monday night, due to some brisk, cold, northerly winds, the outside index had dropped to about 70!  Inside, the laser egg had dropped to 4 — cleaner than clean. Yes, we breathe at the mercy of the winds, and these particular winds probably blew some of that pollution all the way to California!

Those who are interested in the variety of winds in Tianjin, and their interaction with pollution and the mountains north and west of here can consult this link:

wind and pollutionYou’ll see an animated map like this one. It’s actually quite mesmerizing to watch the dirt sweep around our region in complex swirls.

I mentioned WeChat payments. WeChat is an evolving technology, launched in 2011, just five years ago, which has grown into a behemoth that coordinates most of contemporary Chinese society.  Yet many people outside of China don’t know about it. The Chinese name is 微信 (Wēixìn), which means micro-letter.  It’s like a combination of Twitter and Facebook plus Apple-pay.  Of course, at least two of those three are banned in China.


I learned of WeChat from my American friend Lonnie.  He used it to maintain communication with his Chinese wife when they found themselves on opposite sides of the globe.  It offered something unheard of China – a telephone answering machine, all done up in software.  And this one worked for free, even from halfway around the world — anywhere a data connection was available.

Yes, until WeChat, basically none of China’s hundreds of millions of telephones ever had an answering machine.  How’s that for a cultural difference with the rest of the civilized world?

WeChat provides both voice and text messaging, as well as the ability to send pictures.  People can form groups for group messages, and “follow” friends who post public messages.  And nowadays, you also can plug in some cash, and go shopping online.  Honestly, if you’re not on WeChat, do you have any identity at all?  And what other sorts of convenient services may they incorporate in the future?

My own WeChat connection resides on my iPad, another bastion of faulty capitalization.  A recent development in WeChat’s software means that it must remain my only connection, since I can’t transfer it to other devices, since those devices must be tied to my smartphone through its camera and its telephone number. I had used my American landline number to sign up in the first place, and it has no camera. Yeah old technology. It also means I don’t get the updated WeChat client with automatic translation.

Of course, the entire WeChat infrastructure is overseen by the government or its minions. And if they don’t like your message, it will quickly blink out. Meanwhile, since it’s all tied to your mobile phone, they can sit back and learn everything about your location, everything about the pictures that you take, everything about who your friends are, and everything about your interests and purchases. Honestly, I sometimes feel sorry for career spies.   What’s left for them to do? I guess they’ll have to take low-skilled jobs such as hunting down and deleting objectionable thoughts from people’s message streams.

This month’s picture collection

My obsession with photos documenting campus life continues unabated.  This interior shot depicts the second floor of the old campus’s Student Activity Center. A student studies behind an architectural model that someone seems to have abandoned there.  It’s labeled: Science Park – the region surrounding Youth Lake.

Interestingly, one of the modeled buildings is the Center itself!  It’s the white sail-shaped one at the left in the picture, sitting on the bank of “Youth Lake.”

Since the semester’s classes had not yet commenced, the room’s occupants were few. It was a bit cluttered – old plush seats arranged like cafe booths, easels, pictures, notices. A large painting, carelessly leaning against one wall shows workmen constructing . . . . something. Maybe a boat? Maybe the student center?

The singular paintingThe enveloping clutter seemed more protective than smothering. As I wandered about, the sounds of distant rehearsals – pianists, choirs, etc. — romped about me. 

And I also remembered this building from my first trip here in 1998. At the time, an “English corner” (for practicing speaking English) took place just outside it, a couple evenings a week. Foreigners and motorized vehicles weren’t so common back then, so I remember standing in the street, in the gathering darkness, surrounded by a small mob of students politely grilling me about everything American for a couple hours. The experience was okay, but not one that I wanted to repeat.

Student Activities CenterThe analogous Student Activity Center room at the new campus sits by an analogous artificial lake also called “Youth Lake.” It’s visible on the right, through tall windows that seem to invite the outdoors in for a visit.

There’s no clutter. There’s no inexplicable painting or cast-aside keyboards and architectural models — just re-arrangeable chairs and cushions, scattered across the wide floor. Again, the faint sounds of rehearsals – pianists, choirs, drifted in the space. 

2016-02-25 Lecture Hall Panorama (Custom)The Center’s lecture hall also represented a decided upgrade to the old campus’s center. No one performed that day, but someone gave drum lessons in the back stage area. In fact, the whole building was a decided upgrade. Despite its lack of warmth, it’s really a nice facility.

FoyerThis picture shows the entrance to the main administration building, which houses the offices of the president, the publicity department, the international cooperation office, and several other campus-wide organizations.

The foyer is literally three stories tall. The exterior entryway is infested by a forest of gigantic rectangular columns which loom even taller. Like most structures down there, they are cloaked in faux-brick.

A friendly desk with clerks replaces the more common guard station. Meanwhile, the guard stands at attention by the door, at least during business hours.  When you greet him with “Ni hao,” he does his best to be polite and respond softly without moving his mouth or anything else. Of course, nobody but  foreigners ever acknowledges the guard’s presence.

ad buildingBy comparison, the foyer in the old administration building seems pretty plain and matter of fact. Yet, this is the building known and visited by Chairman Mao. It boasts no standing guard, but it does offer a podium with an informative guide to the building. What it lacks in grandeur is made up by its historical gravitas.

Big Tall TreesIn the end, I couldn’t find that combination of sky-high ceiling plus guard anywhere at the old campus. Only the trees displayed such majesty.  In fact, the camera frame could not even contain their splendid height.  How could I completely depict their stateliness?

And then I remembered the “ball mirrors.” Four of them had been planted in the sidewalk  by the lakeside long ago.

Shiny ballThe ball’s shiny surface reflected entire trees, all the way up to the tip- top branches. And in fact, it even reflected me. So I captured it all and even included the bonus of some passing tennis shoes.

This, not the administration building, constitutes the old campus’s true majesty.

Of Possible Interest to Teachers

In December I wrote about a successful lesson and its emotional fallout for me. This month, it happened again, and I realized just what it was that I missed most about teaching elementary school.  I realized it as I wrote about it in my journal entry for this week.

It’s kind of a long entry, but I placed it at the end, so those who aren’t interested can more easily skip it. The background was that the students were supposed to perform skits that day, but in this particular class, some actors in the scheduled groups had been called away unexpectedly. Again, the normal chaos.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

My final class at the old campus presented me with a challenge. Actually, that particular section presents me with a problem of some sort every single week. It’s my “difficult” group, I guess.Isn’t it funny, though, how so often the most challenging classes end up being the most meaningful? Yeah, I’m looking at you, Matt.

Anyway, enough students were missing that we could only present two skits, so even after the emergency extensions that I had prepared, an empty third of an hour remained. I had been thinking recently of “thought shots.” A thought shot is a revision technique used mainly in stories.

Yes, it’s revision – the heart of good writing.  Basically, you insert a paragraph into story events that tells what a character is thinking about them. The purpose could be to better depict a character’s personality, or to fill in background information, etc.

In general, a thought shot is tied to the details of the scenes in which story characters find themselves thinking.  In other words, if the character is sitting in a restaurant, s/he might react to the décor, the other guests, or the food itself, as each of these things may trigger memories or meditations.

I had included thought shots in my English course here for a few years, but I finally gave up on them because few students ever seemed to understand that the thought shot is triggered by details of the “here and now,” and is meant to connect them clearly to the character or to other events. Instead, the students’ thought shots often wandered away from the scene at hand and into the same sloganeering and platitudes which they’d been so thoroughly trained to regurgitate on command for their whole lives.

But I still taught explode-a-moments, another revision technique which stretches out the moment for dramatic emphasis. So instead of writing “I drank some water,” I might stretch out the moment by writing – “My hand moved towards the chilled glass. Gratefully, my fingers wrapped around it. The liquid inside danced and sparkled.  I began to lift it towards my waiting lips,” etc.

But then I thought – maybe an explode-a-moment could anchor a thought shot?

In other words, one could first write an explode-a-moment. Then, for each sentence or two in that explode-a-moment, write a sentence to describe what the character is thinking. I had been thinking that the students ought to review explode-a-moments soon, anyway, so, maybe now would be a good time to do both – review explode-a-moments and try out my thought shot idea.

So I had the students take out paper to write. A list of explode-a-moment prompts already resided on my computer. I displayed it:

She dove into the swimming pool.
He fell from his bicycle.
She tossed a paper into the trash bin.
The firecracker (
鞭炮) exploded.
A cat caught a mouse.
A house fell down in the earthquake.
He laughed so hard at the joke.
She picked up the flower and smelled it.
He sped around the corner on his bike.

I chose the last one for myself. I picked up a piece of chalk, and quickly wrote an explode-a-moment on the chalkboard.

As he approached the corner, he leaned to the left. His feet circled faster. His fingers gripped the brakes. He took a deep breath. He slowly turned the wheel. People jumped out of the way. He pedaled faster. The bike flew like a cyclone, until the corner had been passed.

The students should be able to understand most of that vocabulary.  Perhaps not “gripped,” or “cyclone,” but then I hadn’t had time to think more carefully.

The students then chose one topic for themselves and wrote explode-a-moments for it. After a few minutes I called time. My directions, then, were to read each sentence that they had just written, and write what the character was thinking for that sentence.  Gee, this exercise might also trap the students into actually reading what they had just written!!!

First, I picked up a piece of yellow chalk and tried it myself. Would it produce a coherent thought shot tied to the moment? It felt like I was swinging on a trapeze without a net. I’d never actually tried this before.

Steady your mind. I don’t have much time. Can my feet move fast enough? What if somebody steps in front of me? It would be a tragedy. I’ll watch carefully. Yeah, I need to go fast. I’m late.

IMG_4773 Thought Shot (Large) Hey, that paragraph hung together nicely. And it’s clearly rooted in the events of the scene.  I asked the students to do the same thing. They set to writing.

The bell to end the class cut off the students’ writing. So at that point, I asked one of them to read what she had written. She did. And her paragraph also hung together very nicely. And it was centered “in the moment,” and responded to the events of the scene that she had written. Cool.  The writing sample in the picture above, which I happened to snap while they wrote, also does this.  Perhaps this year I’ll finally have students who will understand “thought shot.”

HPIM1861 Schafer Park International Day Lightened for wallpaper (Medium)And I reflected that this sort of improvisation is the daily part-and-parcel of teaching elementary school in America, where the teacher might have five, six, seven, or even eight different lessons in one day, covering as many different subjects. No teacher ever has time to prepare fully, the way I now could. Improvisation is a necessary skill.

The picture shows an assembly at my old elementary school back in May, 2007. When I once showed it to a group of students here, they couldn’t believe it was America. “Nobody’s blond,” they said.

Nowadays, instead of 30-40 lessons to plan each week, I have only one or two. With plenty of time to prepare, and in order to keep my eight sections all “on the same page,” my lessons had become scripted. I wanted all eight of them to hear the same complete message, and scripting was the only practical way to ensure that. I also wanted all the students, who often can’t understand spoken English, to understand whatever I said, and the only way to ensure that was to write it all down like subtitles so they could also read it.  And I also wanted it all written down to help students who came to office hours.

But even though I always left some room in my scripts for variation, and even though I had written the scripts myself, thus making them presentations that I could stand behind, they couldn’t provide the improvisatory thrill of knowing what I wanted to teach, then not having time enough to prepare everything, but teaching it anyway. It’s that thrill of charging forward, while not completely knowing which way “forward” actually is. It’s the sort of forced risk-taking that wore me out as an elementary school teacher. But I miss it.

It all reminded me of my first lesson here at Tianjin University, almost eight years ago. I had bought a plane ticket from San Francisco to China, which would put me in Tianjin a couple weeks before classes would begin, according to the previous year’s calendar. That would give me time to get over jet lag and plan out the first few English lessons.

But then, I got a note from the English department that the schedule had changed and they wanted all of us to start classes a couple weeks earlier than anticipated. (Such chaotic last-minute changes will be familiar to China veterans). So my first class was now scheduled to begin at about the same time as the plane would be touching down in Beijing.

Luckily, my American friend Rob was already working in the same department, and he was “on the ground” and ready to go. He volunteered to take my first couple class sections for me. In fact, he’d take the first half week, so I could observe him and see what sorts of things the students were used to. Cool.

HPIM3741 Building 8, back in 2008 (Large)
Everything went according to this new plan. He took over my first class early in the week as my plane touched down and a car swept me off to Tianjin. And then the next day, he led me around to my second class so I could observe him. As we passed down the fourth-floor hallway of Building 8 (shown in the picture) and neared the door to the classroom, he took out a schedule to double-check the room number. Suddenly, he froze in place and did a double-take. “Hey, my own class also meets right now. Well, good luck!” and with that, he was off down the hall. And I had ninety-five minutes to fill, with nothing but vague thoughts in my mind as to what I would do. I don’t remember now what I did back then, but I do remember that thrill of “pulling it off.”

Only weeks later did I find out that actually I’d only had to fill ninety minutes, not ninety-five, since a five-minute break was scheduled in the middle of every session. I had kept wondering what all those extra bells were for, but none of the students had ever dared to tell me. Again, China veterans will be familiar with this non-communicative phenomenon.

HPIM3778 Part of one class, 2008 october (Large)Yeah, good times. In that first September here, not only had the schedule been unclear, but the official class lists had not been forthcoming for the first few weeks. My classes filled to overflowing with students who didn’t themselves really know if they were supposed to be enrolled or not. The picture shows part of one of these classes.

Up until this year, those had been the largest classes that I had ever had. One of them grew to over fifty students, and they didn’t even all fit in the room until finally about a dozen of them were sternly told not to attend.

Since those dark-age years so long ago, the English department has gotten its act together, though the general chaos of of this year’s move to the new campus has definitely put a strain on it all. This was the first year since 2008 that I didn’t have a class roll sheet to start class with.

In any case, this week’s improvisatory lesson worked. In fact, It gave me something to also try with the other sections later on in the semester. Life is good.