Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mid-Term Blues

Sometimes, teaching English is a great, engaging, and fun job.  Easy?  No.  Never.  Especially on days like today, when your students are zombies sitting in chairs, looking at you hoping that you'll pull a bunny rabbit out of a hat while bouncing upside-down on your head and teaching them the key to perfect American English pronunciation.

And yes, nearly all teachers can recall at least one day each semester where they nearly lose it with one of these classes.  Usually, it's nothing a stiff drink or a lot of prayer can't solve, but it's also usually the sign that it's the mid-term and it's time to take a vacation.

When these signs aren't apparent, an email from a student like this one might be the last glaring signal that you need a break.

Hi, Grace

I am very sorry for making you so depressed and let you almost lost your temper this afternoon. I consider I owe you an apology for my inactivity in your class. 

I think that the awkward silent air in class can definitely make any oral English teacher mad at her students. Please calm down!, we are still your students. For myself, I wish I could speak English fluently. I wish I had ever had a good English teacher like you teaching me when I started learning English. And I wish I had been more active today.

So, please forgive us for our inactivity in your class this afternoon.

Boy, Michael.  I knew I was a peeved at you, but I didn't realize that you were making me depressed!  I especially like the pleading tone when he tells me to, "Please come down!" followed by a badly misplaced comma.  It really is time for a vacation!

Domestic Travel: Luoyang, Henan Province

The beginning of May marks the Chinese "May Day" Holiday, which is basically the equivalent America's Labor Day.  It originally was called "Golden Week" and was a week-long holiday created by the government to boost the economy and increase consumption.  I suppose the Chinese simply weren't spendy enough to make it worth giving them a whole week off (and forbid it that anyone should ever be allowed to have a holiday just to rest or enjoy life), so it got shortened down to just a 3-day weekend.

Our school provided a guided trip to Luoyang and Zhengzhou down in Henan Province.  The whole trip, including admission, food, and transportation, cost a cool 500 RMB (that's less than 80 USD, folks!) so I took advantage of the opportunity to see more of China.

After a pleasant overnight train trip, we arrived in Luoyang at 6:30 am and were off to the Longmen Grottoes.  The word "grottoes" conjured up thoughts of the Playboy Mansion or peg-legged pirates, but this couldn't be further from.  Sadly, our fairly useless guide didn't tell us much about the history of Longmen, but we gathered what information we could from the propaganda information outside of the site.  Although I don't share the Buddhist belief, the human feat of hand carving each grotto was very impressive.  It's unfortunate that many of the Buddhas have been decapitated by the Cultural Revolution "factitious natural erosion."  (Factitious, as you may have guessed, would be the opposite of fictitious-- which means it is, indeed, a fact.  Oy, China.)

The grottoes were carved around 490 BC and are mostly in tact today (aside some of the factitious natural erosion).  The detail that remains is pretty incredible.
A wall of tiny little Buddhas

 These little caves are also filled with carved Buddhas and statues.

These giant Buddhas are the main attraction.  You can see them compared to the people standing below for size reference.  They are HUGE!  Again, the detail is amazing and there are amazing carvings in the walls and to the sides of these giant suckers.

Being that it was a major (albeit short) holiday, all the major landmarks in China were flooded with tourists.  People back home complain about crowds at Disneyland on a Saturday in the summer.  That's China on any given Friday.  I don't think I've ever grown to enjoy the insane crowds in China, but I think my tolerance for them has certainly improved.

A sea of black hair, sun umbrellas, and tourist groups.

The ants go marching one by one, hurrah!  Hurrah!

Despite the crowds, I was still able to find a few moments of solitude and quite in the midst of the tourism madness.

After our rushed tour through the grottoes, it was back on the bus with our useless tour guide for an hour-long journey to Shaolin Temple nestled in the foothills of the famous Song Mountain- a gorgeous mountain range surrounded by green.  And yes, Shaolin as in Shaolin Soccer. 

But more importantly, Shaolin as in the birthplace of Kung Fu (Gongfu, for any of your die-hard Mandarin speakers).  A little-known fact is that much of my parents' early courtship was marked by frequent trips to the local Kung Fu theater to watch old Bruce Lee movies.  Then- according to my mom- my dad would romantically whisk my mom back to his apartment and put the moves on.  No, not those moves.  He would show off his mad nunchuck skills.  Yes, my parents really are that cool.

So with that in my history, I was actually really excited to tour the birthplace of Kung Fu.  Unfortunately, a LOT of other people were, too.

The line of cars leading up to the parking lot for the Shaolin Temple.  There's nothing scarier than a crowd of Chinese people than a crowd of Chinese people behind the wheel!

After some time in the car, we made it into Shaolin Temple.  The temple itself was not spectacular- once you've seen one Buddhist temple in China, you've pretty much seen them all until you head up to Tibet.  But the most interesting part of Shaolin was the Pagoda Garden, which puts our American cemeteries to shame.

An interesting Buddhism tidbit that I learned was that you can learn a lot of information about a monk from his pagoda.  Since Buddhism runs on the merits/demerits system, the more merits a man has, the higher his pagoda is.  This doesn't come as a surprise to most, but what was surprising was that you can earn a huge amount of merits if you raise money for your temple or for Buddhism in general.  The monks won't keep the money to themselves, but if you happen to garner a larger amount of donations or contributions to Buddhism during your life, you might end up with a few more levels on your pagoda when you pass on.

There were also a lot of monks (some perhaps more authentic than others) peddling goods like prayer beads, and one old man who was selling these interesting herbs.

A doorway at Shaolin Temple.

Rice paddies in the surrounding area with the Song Mountain in the background.

Of course, you can't go to the birthplace of Kung Fu without taking in a Kung Fu show.  Because of the traffic, we missed the last show at the temple, but our guide took us to one of the many surrounding Kung Fu academies near the temple.  We actually went to Bruce Lee's Kung Fu academy and saw some of the students perform Kung Fu.  

Our guide said that the school probably has 4000-5000 students and costs at least 100,000 RMB per year!  This is a fairly typical Chinese practice.  Parents will enroll their children into a school specializing in one skill, and they become experts in that skill at a very young age.  This also explains why China is kicking major butt at a lot of Olympic events like gymnastics, diving, and figure skating-- they've been doing it since they were popped out of the womb!  

 Why settle for one Bruce Lee when you could have thousands upon thousands of pocket-sized Bruce Lees?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Don't call it San Fran

Or Frisco.  Even "SF' is cutting it a little close.  A place simply known as "the city" is deserving of the ridiculous talent and patience it takes to produce something like this.

I discovered Karen M O'Leary via DesignSponge, another blog I frequent almost daily.  Ms. O'Leary's maps and other results of her awesome talent are available for purchase at her Etsy shop.  If you know me well, you know I am a huge sucker for maps, so I was really excited to see these on DesignSponge.  I'd be quick to snap up one of her amazing maps (especially this one of my favorite city in the world) if I weren't working on a Chinese salary.  Who knows, though?  After this Financial Crisis blows over, I may end up being in the country that lands on top.

Either way... ridiculous talent, wouldn't ya say?  I miss home.

Embracing my inner (Julia) Child

Like many other girls with a penchant for baking and blogging, I was inspired by the movie Julie and Julia to get back into the kitchen (not in the metaphorical sense, though) and re-tie those apron strings (again, I mean that literally).

I've always loved cooking, entertaining, and experimenting with ingredients in the kitchen.  I haven't always loved teaching, but I did have a goal this semester to teach at least one cooking class to my students.  I fully expected to channel Julia Child in my cooking-- not the spy in China aspect (though I do feel like one, sometimes), nor the strange tenor-falsetto she rambunctiously encouraged her viewers with to seize a freshly buttered raw chicken with vigor.  I meant more of those moments where she flopped things out of pans live on the air and simply wiped her hands on her apron and said, "Well, it's no problem because we have a perfect one in the oven!"

I held my first cooking class in April.  We made my favorite recipe for banana muffins/bread and chocolate chip cookies.  The banana muffins were a huge hit, and a few of my students went out and bought ovens, muffin cups, and most of them are now proud owners of rubber spatulas after I convinced them it's the single most useful tool you'll have in your kitchen. 

Most Chinese students have never seen measuring cups or chocolate chips before.  Seeing all these baking goods was like going into the Museum of American Cuisine in the "Why We're All Fat" wing.

Like a good, responsible teacher who overdoes it and makes fun things completely un-fun, I created a Baking handout filled with useful vocabulary, tips, and even a few idioms.

Aren't they cute?  They look so happy making cookies here, especially compared to this picture...
...where they are basically sleeping with their eyes open.  I think I'm introducing measuring spoons here and they are responding with the ever-dreaded student glaze.  I guess I should stick to my day job and let Julia do the real entertaining.

A few of them came back with stories of their first baking successes and eagerly asked when the second class would be.  Call me a pushover... but I couldn't say no to their puppy dog eyes.  Class two was on baking apple pie all completely from scratch.  They learned how to make the crust, apple sauce, and put it all together to make it look perfect.  Like this:

Ooooh, SNAP!  Look at them apples!  The sauce, bubbling from underneath a blanket of perfectly layered apple slices, all topped with a golden brown crust!  Not bad for first-timers, hm?
 The lattice could use some work, but for a bunch of Chinese students who didn't even know what apple sauce was, I had to give them props for their first-time glory.

Well, since I was on a baking kick and I wanted to get the most out of my tart tin (as pictured above) and had a bunch of whipping cream, I decided to experiment and make a peach-custard tart. 

The picture didn't come out so well, but it was quite tasty and super easy, too!

Today, my students asked again about when our next cooking class would be.  I love cooking, but I'm quickly running out of ideas.  Any suggestions from my faithful (and few) readers would be gladly welcomed!

Next up: lemon meringue, chocolate cream, and about 500 dates with Jillian Michaels and Billy Blanks.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


I have many, especially here in Beijing.  Some of my ugliest moments have come to fruition here in Beijing.  When you see what's coming next, you might understand why.

There's not much that I want right now more than this...

courtesy of

Look at the fat marbling through the appealing pink of slow roasted pastrami.  The generous slabs of meat that are probably oozing with fatty, buttery, oily goodness and seeping its way gradually into flavorful, chewy bread... not that air-filled, useless white bread that can never NOT be sweet that you find here in China.  The dramatic pop of yellow that calls attention to your eyes and your tastebuds.

I'm drooling all over my keyboard.  And being in Beijing means there's absolutely.  Nothing.  I.  Can.  Do.  About.  It.

Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted to turn stones into bread, and he withheld.  And here I am.  Ready to throw in the towel for a Pastrami sandwich.  How meek the human spirit can be!