February 25, 2009

Mr Crazy

Filed under: China,Dalian,teaching — Kim @ 3:59 am

I have said before, and will say again, that I think most English teachers I have come across in China (and Japan and Thailand and Hungary) are decent, well-adjusted people who do a professional job.

But a minority are not, and they tend to smear the reputation of the majority. So far so predictable…but these guys also provide a lot of fun and good stories, and last night while drinking with a couple of old-school Dalian English teachers I was treated to a few teacherly tales about some of the weirder ones who’ve drifted through the Dalian TEFL scene over the years.

I thought the best story was about Crazy Jack. Ole Crazy Jack apparently was a big guy who could get quite violent when drunk – I think we’ve all heard our fair share of anecdotes about those kinds of alcoholic antics – but anyway, and all, the conversation about him started something like this…

“Oh yeah and what about Crazy Jack! You remember him?”

“Remember him! Man, my third night in Dalian I got talking to Crazy Jack in Dave’s bar and after a few beers he asked me if I’d like to go back to his place, take a couple of Es, and then he’d cross-dress for me.”

I think “Crazy Jack” earned his nickname there. I’ve never actually worked with a drug-loving, cross-dressing, bar-brawling bisexual…but I kind of wish I had.

(Oh, and I changed his name. He’s not “Jack”, but he is crazy.)

September 5, 2008

The Road to Lüshun

Filed under: China,Dalian,teaching — Kim @ 4:02 pm

Back to school! Back on the old school bus.

Twice a week for the last year I have been taking the school bus from Dalian City centre to the outskirts of Lüshun (aka Port Arthur), where the new campus for Dalian University of Foreign Languages is located. It’s a 40 kilometre trip and takes an hour. Come along for a ride and we can take in a fair amount of what makes Dalian an appealing and increasingly prosperous city.

Leaving at 7am, we first go round the back of Labor Park and pass a “scenic viewpoint” that always has a group of of old folk doing their morning stretches while looking at this picture postcard view…

dalbird

Actually, that photo is a bit old and there are a fair few more skyscrapers downtown now. A new one every month it feels like.

Then we stutter along the busy Dongbei Lu and about 10 minutes later the next landmark on our journey is the “world famous” Xinghai square. It’s a BIG square by the sea.

xinghai

But it’s a bit of a mystery just how big it is and where it really comes in the rankings of bigboy squares. Having been in Dalian almost 2 years now, I’ve heard tell on numerous occasions that Xinghai is the largest square in Asia, and have even read somewhere that it’s about four times bigger than Tiananmen. But at the back of my mind I thought I remembered that Tiananmen is the largest square in the world, and so I did what homo modernicus does and googled “largest square in the world”. The vast majority of sites agree that the answer is Tiananmen.

According to Wikipedia’s “Largest City Square” rankings page, for example, Tiananmen Square is first at 440,000 m² and Xinghai is 36th at 45,000 m². Moreover, googling “world’s largest square” will get you almost nothing but Tiananmen, yet put in “asia’s largest square” and you’ll get almost nothing but Xinghai. Hmmm… last time I checked Beijing was in Asia.

Something funny going on there. Can anyone shed some light on this?

Anyroad…we bear right at Xinghai and creep along the bloody busy commuter road leading to the Software Park and the Hi-Tech Zone. God only knows what this road will be like in 10 years time when the number of cars on Dalian roads will very likely have tripled.

This Software/Hi-Tech area is one of the reasons Dalian is on the up in the world and is even being touted as the next Bangalore. It’s an already impressive place with pleasant modern buildings and plenty of well planned and preserved green bits. See below.

softwarepark

But soon, just along the coast a bit, the “shock and awe” extension will open and many of Dalian’s IT workers will be manning the phones and clicking their mouses in a grandly corporate hilltop setting of mock castles and palaces and gleaming glass office blocks, with lakes and bridges and aquaducts dotted around. All with a nice seaview. I’ve watched that place being built over the last year and it is certainly the most impressive and über-modern business area I’ve seen. Makes Canary Wharf look a bit old and stuffy.

Then as the bus turns right past this Brave New World, we are out of Dalian and moving onto the road to Lushun proper…and the hills let out a sigh as the concrete clutter finally fades away. Dalian’s hills are occluded, crowded, or pockmarked by tower blocks, TV towers, observatories and the like. The hillsides seem burdened by the sheer number of people living in China, and it is rare indeed to get a glimpse of a clear green view around town.

But the first few kilometres of the road to Lushun verge on the image of the rural idyll. Grey slabs of stone give way to green slopes and trees and a few squat little peasant houses with their orange roofs nestle at the foot of the as yet untouched hills. And you have to wonder how much longer this will last. How much longer until Dalian and Lüshun melt into one big conurbation?

For a kilometre or two the road winds its way through valleys, but soon the land opens up to an undulating plain on the right with distantly looming hills/mountains where a huge and expensive housing complex will soon be built. At the moment the roadside is lined with the construction company’s billboards, adorned with optimistic representations of what the houses will look like and of course with slogans.

The slogans are in Chinese and in “English”, this being a high-class housing complex you understand… you gotta have your gobbledygook English to be really classy. But one of the more coherent slogans that sticks in my mind is “Texture of Nature. Life of Poetry!”. Ah, yes…poetry! Nature! Construction!

It must be said that when the winter sets in the Dongbei landscape becomes an almost uniform dusty brown, but right now it is gentle shades of late summer green. Autumn is beautiful too: “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” autumnal breezes and the changing colours of the leaves. And the spring is sublime…come springtime on the road to Lüshun and the hills are alive with bursts of Forsythia and Cherry blossom. “Loveliest of trees the cherry now, is hung with bloom along the bough”, and we have the Japanese occupation to thank for a lot of that. Only a non-Chinese could write that last sentence.

Actually, the Japanese originally got their national obsession with cherry blossom from the Chinese, but they have made it their own and it has assumed an importance in Japanese culture that far outstrips the Chinese concern with it. But as we pass the small town of Longwantan (we are two-thirds of our way to Lushun now) there is a park where, come the season, scenes of cherry blossom viewing very reminiscent of Japan take place. To the best of my knowledge, the trees here were mostly planted by the Japanese.

blossoms

Then it is only a few more kilometres past fruit trees and the occasional building until we reach the Lüshun coast. Turn right again and as you are driving along the remaining couple of kilometres to Dalian University of Foreign Languages you can view one of the calmest seas in the world. It is, as my Dad would say, “as flat as a millpond” almost all the time and that makes it ideal for “seafood farming.” I’m not sure exactly what marine creatures are being kept down there (crabs, abalone, sea cucumbers, for Dalian’s fancy seafood restaurants?) but I can see the sea is dotted with buoys to show the fisherfolk where to go for harvest-time. And huge lorries full of kelp are a common sight round here.

Lüshun is an “up and coming area” so the next feature on the coast road is a huge new housing complex with a couple of towering tower blocks and row upon row of European Villa-style houses. It’s called the “The Blue Beach Resort” and I guess it’s for those rich enough to want a second house by the sea. There wasn’t a beach there a year ago, but they’ve managed to ship one in somehow. They’ve also constructed a moat and a marina, and there is a mountain backdrop and a sea view, so all very nice…apart, that is, from the lingering piscine pong.

Almost there. Another minute’s drive and we turn right again (I’ve just realised the whole journey consists of right-turns) to get to my university…the resplendent Dalian University of Foreign Languages.

I’m not being tongue-in-cheek – it really is nice now – but about a year ago, for the first few months, it was pretty grim. To save money the students had been ordered in well before the place was ready. The roads weren’t even tarmacked, the students had no hot water – and sometimes no water at all – the paint was still drying, there were potholes everywhere (and my Mexican friend Emiliano fell into one and nearly broke his leg) trucks full of construction materials and migrant workers roared around everywhere and it’s amazing nobody died, the builders were in a great hurry to put down the paving and did a very sloppy job, and the 80% female student population felt a bit uneasy about being stared at by the hordes of male migrant workers who were living on campus with them. It was all fairly depressing and if that kind of crap had been attempted in any democratic country I guess there would have been a student uprising. I did hear a few students grumbling, but really not much, considering the circumstances and considering that this is a university that is considered “expensive” by Chinese standards. By and large they seemed stoical about it and I remember there appeared some graffiti on the gym wall scrawled in permanent marker pen…”It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness“. Well, indeed.

But anyway, anyway, I digress. And it’s nice now…really! Rose gardens, plenty of trees, restored paving, good restaurants, hot baths, nice roads, warm classrooms, a lovely big library with lots of computers and lots of censorship, a grand new concert hall, and lots of happy-looking students suffused with the soft afterglow of the Olympic spirit!

dawai

The actual town of Lushun is still a couple of kilometres away…over the hills and down the vales… and despite the fact that a lot of foreign teachers live on campus, and that the Medical University next door has about 500 foreign students attending, it’s still not entirely clear if foreigners are allowed to go there or not!

Lüshun/Port Arthur is a naval base you see, and was strictly off limits to foreigners for ages. Because they might see some secret ships or seduce some sailors or something. Or they might even wander into the city centre and buy a KFC, yes there is one. Can’t have that! But the rules have – reportedly – been relaxed, and I have indeed spent a pleasant day strolling around the town and viewed the battleships from Baiyu Tower (below) without being bothered, apart from by the photo tout at the top.

baiyu

But then I was told that I had been lucky and that actually it’s better not to go because foreigners do still occasionally get fined and arrested. Who knows? Welcome to the military mentality. Put me on the peacebus back to Dalian!

July 2, 2008

Japanese Houses in Dalian

Filed under: asia,China,Dalian — Kim @ 8:20 am

The Japanese were in Dalian for a fairly long time (1905-1945) and left their mark. And that, for me, is part of the place’s charm, especially when it comes to architecture. The Japanese built the tramway and some quaint old-style trams still run. Some of the buildings, such as the redbrick Railway Hospital, are well known amongst architecture buffs in Japan. And certain districts and certain buildings have an antique European (and dare I say “colonial”) charm that stands out starkly from the overwhelming majority of modern Chinese “shoebox” tower-blocks. A very small number of these buildings are Russian, and there is a well known “Russian street” in Dalian, but actually the great majority of this antique looking, European-style architecture is Japanese.

j house

Now, I lived in Japan for 3 years and I never saw any Japanese houses like these, and it is of course slightly odd that Dalian’s European-style buildings should have been built by the Japanese. But then again the Japanese have a certain reputation for copying and this is maybe another manifestation of that. It could even be argued that Japan went into a kind of national trauma at finding out how technologically and militarily superior the Western powers were (famously initiated by the July 8, 1853 incident when Commodore Perry’s black ships steamed up to Tokyo and scared the bejaysus out of the natives) and that this trauma worked itself out in an aping of the despised-yet-admired western powers. Hence the ultra-quick modernisation of Japan, hence the Japanese adoption of western habits (business suits etc) and western institutions, hence the launching of an ill-fated “Japanese Empire”, and hence the Japanese European-style colonial houses in Dalian.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese have a slightly more ambivalent attitude towards reminders of the Japanese occupation. Colonial charm is often lost on the colonised. When I was teaching a visiting banker from Beijing last summer she told me that her 14-year old daughter would be coming for the weekend and asked me what I would recommend seeing in Dalian other than the zoo and Xinghai square, coz they’d already been to those places. I thought for a while and then came up with the suggestion that it might be interesting to look at the old Japanese houses, as they really were different and curious and of historical interest. She looked appalled at this suggestion and shook her head and said, “No, no, no”. When I asked why not she just shook her head again and said “Not good.” I was pretty sure I knew what she was thinking (shame for China etc) so I didn’t push it.

And here in Dalian most of these wonderful old houses are almost completely neglected. In England, the English equivalent of “period houses” like these would be highly sought after and expensive. They would be owned by upper-middle-class owners who would renovate them and refurbish them and treat them with loving pride. Here in Dalian the locals don’t want to live in them. They are often occupied by garbage collectors from the countryside and so are rather decrepit and surrounded by piles of rubbish and rubbish carts.

jhouse

j hoose

Some are in slightly better nick, but they are still rather undesirable and run-down, as this flickr photo and accompanying comment shows,

j

This is an old residential area from the Japanese era..I think the houses are nice but poorly maintained..they told me the poor people live here

But actually I suppose we should be thankful that there are any Japanese buildings left at all. The Chinese could have easily and understandably demolished them all and thus gotten rid of a reminder of oppression. I heard that ex Dalian mayor and all-round good guy Bo Xilai was largely responsible for ensuring that a lot of these old Japanese buildings survived – cheers Bo!

And I shouldn’t finish this post without mentioning the strictly-for-tourists “Japanese street” in Dalian, which was trying to piggy back on the success of the “Russian street”, I guess. This surreal and silly street is lined with large modern buildings which were built by Chinese to look like Japanese houses and which end up looking bland and somehow western. I’ve been there a few of times and it’s always empty, and I’m really not sure what it’s for or who it’s aimed at. Don’t go there.

June 4, 2008

Mei you!

Filed under: China,Dalian,east-west — Kim @ 10:14 am

I remember reading about China in the British papers about 20 years ago and one story that stuck for some reason was about how horrible it was to go shopping in China. It wasn’t really the fact that the choice was so limited, apparently, it was that the shop assistants were surly, unhelpful and almost always answered “mei you!” ( not have/we haven’t got any) when asked where something was. The writer, who had been living in China a good while I remember, said that he had come to hate that word more than any other.

Well, China is changing and China has changed. I find shopping in China to be a pleasurable experience most of the time as there’s somewhere to find anything and the staff are usually helpful, if sometimes a bit thick. But it seems that old habits die hard and that the old enemy “Mei you!” is around more often than it should be.

I was in my local Tescos with my wife a couple of days ago and we wanted to buy a plunger. We were looking around the bathroom section and not having much luck when along comes an attendant and so my (Chinese) wife asks where the plungers are. “Ah, Mei you!” she said confidently and went on about her business. Fine, but as we turned the corner of the next aisle we were faced with a fairly large selection of plungers. So of course I picked one up and used it give a good plunging to Miss Mei You’s silly snout. Anyway, not a big thing of course, and you have to expect idiocy from time to time but “the curious affair of the plunger in Tescos” reminded me of another baffling incident quite recently.

My parents were here for a short visit a few weeks ago and as my mum is an inveterate postcard sender, off we went to Xinhua (the national bookstore) to purchase postcards. My mobile has a handy little dictionary so I looked up the Chinese character for “postcard” and presented it at the help desk. We were told by the lady that postcards were up on the third floor but just as were about to trot off the help desk lady had a thought and asked us whether we wanted postcards of Dalian…yes, we said, that would be nice and she shook her head sadly and gave us a “mei you”. Ah, really, what a shame, so I thought I’d ask her where it would be possible to get postcards of Dalian and was struggling to understand her answer when an English speaking Chinese bystander saw the situation and stepped in to help translate. “She thinks you can get postcards of Dalian at the museum” (miles away) ah, thanks, I said, but there are none here, right? The kind lady checked for me… “mei you!”

In any case, my mum decided that generic postcards of China would do, so off we went to floor 3 and found a postcard rack at least half full of postcards of Dalian.

Odd! Not to mention silly. Especially since that was the only postcard rack in the shop,so it wasn’t as if there were lots of them and this one could have been overlooked.

I’m not sure why on either of the two incidents I got a “mei you” but it could be something to do with the shop staff not wanting to admit ignorance or just not really caring if they sold anything or not. Anyway, if I was dictator of China I would introduce compulsory memorization for all shop staff of the phrase “Sorry, I’m not completely sure, but you might try looking in ….”

gotta go now…off to the shops.

May 15, 2008

Moving House

Filed under: blogs,Dalian — Kim @ 9:39 am

Another long spell of postlessness. Ho hum.

Excuses = My parents came for a couple of weeks and I have also been moving house. I’m happy to say I am now online again and otherwise settled into a spacious flat with a great view in the middle of downtown Dalian. Come visit!

I’ll be living with my Chinese parents for a couple of years…which ought to improve my Chinese anyway.

Moving house is a pain in the arse tho, and when my Mum was here she told me that it came out second (after divorce) in a big survey of “The most stressful experiences in life”, which rings true to me at the moment.

And here’s a random observation to end this “sorry I haven’t been posting post“…

“Those who are eager for praise should learn to deal graciously with criticism, be it fair or unfair, or else risk losing esteem in the eyes of those who do not deal out false and empty praise.”

Don’t you just love gnomic nuggets of wisdom like that? It could almost be prefaced with “Confucius he say…” If you google it though, you’ll find it was coined by liddle old me…about ten minutes ago.

And any idea what context I have in mind?