Being Unzen With China

Lotus

4 years.

This is the term of office for an American President.

The length of time to complete a university degree.

How long it takes after graduation to feel like an adult.

And finally, 4 years is the expiry date on loving China.

It started happening last spring when my friend David and I met for lunch.

“You look bloody awful,” I exclaimed.

By |January 28th, 2014 |Categories: Life, Wuxi |62 Comments

Before You Teach in China, Read This

teachchina003

So many websites and bloggers extol the virtues of teaching overseas. Reach to Teach is one example.  The writer of this blog post tries to convince you with six reasons to teach abroad.

Teaching can be rewarding, but my experiences in China have been polarizing.

When I first arrived, I taught at Jiangnan University, the largest university in Wuxi.  The students were enthusiastic, serious and hard working.   Jiangnan management treated the teachers fairly well.  I was wined and dined at special occasions and was even taken on a weekend excursion to Yangzhou.  My colleagues were kind enough, kept to themselves.  It was fine.

Then things switched at North American College (NAC), formerly Lambton College.  NAC is a private college on the same campus as Jiangnan, so I didn’t have to change cities or residences.  Here’s the reality about some private colleges, many students that attend have failed or scored low in the Gaokao, so this affects their attitude.  My students cared less about the course.  They would play on their smartphones constantly, not show up, speak to their classmates when I would speak. One had a tantrum because of something his friend said and stormed out.  Oh, and sleeping.  They loved to sleep in class, rather than outside of class.  The sleep thing happens in Chinese classrooms, but it exacerbated me — I was already on edge.  Management was ineffectual and at the same time confusing.  They’d assert one rule, only to break it later, because wealthy parents are paying and that’s all that matters.  Now, my colleagues?  That was another story.

I’d like you to meet Lynn.  I won’t use her real name, though it’s tempting.  This was June, about two months ago.  I sat in front of my computer in shock, mouthing the words from her email.  “It’s clear you don’t know anything about writing an exam.”  I could quote more from that poison pen letter, but let’s zoom to earlier that same day when she stopped me outside our apartment complex and started berating me, her tone laced with condescension. Oh, always the sarcasm.  Some other teachers were also outside at the same time and heard every word.

By |August 27th, 2013 |Categories: Travel Tips, Wuxi |60 Comments

Street Art in China: Wuxi

Art is a bloated bag of bullshit. Pregnant with pretention, popularity competitions and false muses.  I gave it up officially in 2003 after a 10 year run.  After I left my ex.

My long term ex is a fine art painter.  He subjected me to Jackson Pollock smeared floors, the dusty smell of dried, caked paint hardening a litter of brushes, and that nasty substance known as paint thinner — noxious if I left the windows shut all day.

Not to mention art shows.  Attended by anorexic, existential depressives.  And those whinging milky art fags — you know who you are.  There I was, planted in a throng of pomp with a frozen smile chiseling permanent grooves in my cheeks, being dictated by the circus.  These shenanigans paralyzed any chance to absorb the talent surrounding me.

I grew tired of gloss instead of realism.  That the art world wasn’t about the work, but how well one could write a proposal for grants, flatter a gallery owner or edge out another artist.

Then I grieved.  Clutched a wine bottle, threw the covers over my head because deep in my sarcastic, flippant guts, I love art.  Art moves me.  Makes my mind swirl with possibilities.  The whys.  The big ‘yes’ of the universe.

Here I am in China teaching, writing, going about my life.  And believe it or not, besides attending festivals and skipping through gardens, I also do mundane things.

The latest mundane thing was going to my Chinese bank.  China is still in the thrall of a building frenzy, so across the street from my bank is an empty lot, where a building was bulldozed some months back.  A concerte fence surrounds the property to show the illusion of productivity   WE ARE BUILDING HERE.  STAY AWAY.

I seem to withdraw money frequently because over time the wall changed.  Week by week, panels of street art magically appeared.

I became obsessed with the wall.  Waiting for the next, next, next.

Until, I burst.  My roly poly art belly broke water.  Giving in, I ran across the street one afternoon and stared.  At every single detail.

wuxi art 01

By |April 10th, 2013 |Categories: Culture, Wuxi |26 Comments

Visions of Plum Blossoms in My China

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There’s a reason why gardens are protected in the land of the dragon.  Amid continuous perceptions of China, you know which ones I mean… The indiscriminate spitting, a toddler relieving himself on the street, e-bikes nearly colliding with bodies, bone splinters in meat — need I go on?

See, in a Chinese garden you rarely, if ever, encounter such harsh truisms.

Gardens are the no-fly zone.  They are pristine.  Watered.  Tended.  Trimmed.  Workers are on hand around the clock to clean up debris, rake leaves and fertilize.  Everything is flecked with gold and wine porters all oiled up in tight-fitting loincloths fill up your empty glass!  Er.. scratch that.  Heh.  I get my gardens mixed up sometimes.

Back to Chinese gardens.

Why are they so important to the culture?  As a Chinese proverb says: “If you want to be happy forever, make a garden.”

Gardens were constructed for emperors, merchants, scholars, artists and writers.  Even the common man, by escaping to a public garden.  They are meant to be discovered slowly, over time.

I use to tutor a Chinese man who longs to travel and wanted to improve his conversational English.  Once, he and I were walking by a canal flanked with landscaping.  He pointed out a willow tree, and beside that, was a plum blossom tree.  Then he pointed out another willow tree, with yet another plum blossom tree, until I finally noticed the pattern.  “In China, gardens are always done this way.  A willow tree and a plum tree together.”

By |April 2nd, 2013 |Categories: Culture, Wuxi |17 Comments

The Lantern Festival is All Smiles and Light

Two weeks ago I took part in the Lantern Festival here in Wuxi.  Whoopie!  Celebrated on the 15th day of the first month of the lunisolar calendar, the Chinese take a brief pause in their packed lives to gather, eat, and set the night ablaze with lanterns.

I pestered my friends to join me at a Xihui Park in Wuxi, at the crest of Huishan Mountain.

The festival’s origins are as multi-layered as Spring Festival, with mythology tightly woven in the cloth of a crimson lantern.

Some myths say the festival was meant to culminate with the first full moon of the lunisolar year, others speak of the Jade Emperor’s anger at villagers who killed his favorite animal, a crane.  The Emperor planned to destroy the village with hellfire, when a wise, elderly man (why is it always an old guy?) counseled the village to set off firecrackers and light the entire village with lanterns to make it appear as though it was already in flames.  This ruse worked, saving the village.

Another one I like is the association to Taoism.  The Taoist god for good fortune is Tianguan and ironically, his birthday falls on the 15th day of the first lunar month.  To appease and please, devotees coordinate various activities to bring good fortune.

Either way, I got my fill of lanterns, lanterns, lanterns!

Silky red lanterns on display at Xihui — early evening

By |March 11th, 2013 |Categories: Culture, Wuxi |16 Comments

Spring Festival Photoessay: Best of the Best

Xīn Nián Kuài Lè!  Or in loosely translated terms: Happy New Year!  Traditionally, New Year’s Day  was called Yuan Dan.  Yuan means “the beginning”; Dan means “day”.  I’m fond of another interpretation: the first sunrise.

When the Chinese republic was established in the 1900’s it was renamed “Spring Festival”.  In relation to the Chinese calendar, dates are interconnected to the moods of the moon and the time of the solar year.  Quite often, Chinese New Year is referred to as the “Lunar New Year”.

So many abundant ways to describe it.  If I were to settle on one, mythology fascinates the most [1]:

“An ancient Chinese legend tells of a man-eating predatory beast called Nian, extremely fierce, with a long head and sharp horn. Nian dwelled deep in the sea the whole year long, but on every Chinese New Year eve it would climb onto the shore to devour livestock and harm humans in a near-by village. Therefore, every Chinese New Year’s Eve, all the villagers would take their old and young deep into the mountains to hide from Nian.

One Chinese New Year’s Eve a grey haired man appeared in the village. He asked permission to stay for the night and assured everyone that he would chase away the beast. No one believed him. In addition, the old man steadfastly refused to go to the mountains to hide. Seeing that he could not be persuaded, the villagers departed without him.

When the beast arrived at the village to wreck havoc as usual, it was met with a sudden burst of exploding firecrackers. Startled by the noise, the flashes of light and red banners flying about, it hastily turned and fled!

The following day, as the people returned from the mountains, they found the village intact and safe. The old man had left, but they found the remains of the three precious items he had used to chase the beast Nian away. They all agreed that the old man must be a deity who had come to help free them of the beast.”

By |February 12th, 2013 |Categories: Culture, Wuxi |32 Comments