Monday, June 27, 2011

A Journey

I have a one month holiday, and what better way to spend it than to return to the homeland, an annual event that most foreign teachers in China participate in since the schools pay for it. The first leg of our journey is a 9 to 10 hour bus ride to Hong Kong. This is in a nice express bus with decent leg room, cold air conditioning, and a pit stop every two or three hours. The countryside is lush due to the heavy rains and when that gets boring there is "True Blood" on the laptop.
There are various bus way stations along the highway, and all serve a complimentary lunch that consists of a Styrofoam container of rice with a little vegetable and dubious meat on top. The Hong Kong bus stops at a real restaurant where the passenger sit down for a ten course meal for 25 RMB. We had chicken, white fish, squid, pork, baked yams, several vegetables, rice and tea. There is a guy from Japan in the group. He works for a seafood company and lives in Zhanjiang. I wonder what life is like for a foreigner who is not as obvious as me---until he opens his mouth.
I manage a nap and sleep through the mountains. I wake up in the Pearl River Delta area. We are on a big bridge going over a big toxic river that has gone through the manufacturing heart of China, and nearing Shenzhen and the border into Hong Kong.
Even though Hong Kong is now a part of China, it is still its own entity and you have to go through customs. Customs for the buses is basically a very nice, modern and air conditioned barn. You take all your belongings and wait in line to get departed by a Chinese official, then you wait in line to be welcomed by a Hong Kong official. The whole thing is about 45 minutes of quality line time. You then get back on your bus. It took another 45 minutes to get to our stopping place. Space is at such a premium in Hong Kong that they would never squander it on a bus station, so there is a side street that buses use that is near a subway station. We got off into a hot, late afternoon and humped our luggage down the stairs into marvelous and very busy subway system.
Our hotel, chosen online due to its proximity to the subway, is only a few stops away in Kowloon. I'd never stayed at this particular place, the Comfort Lodge, but my preferred accommodations were booked, and this one had the right price. Using my Google map, we find the right street, a narrow, one block affair, but there is no sign for the hotel. I find the address on a gateway, and a friendly dude came out and leads us in.
While we were being schmoozed by this guy, his underlings are working to cover their asses. They somehow missed the reservation that was made through an online booking company called Agoda. They get us a room at a place next door, that was OK except for the fact that there was only one bed, albeit a big one. Saturday evening during the summer is not a time to be trying to find a hotel in Hong Kong so I reluctantly accept. (I swear never to use Agoda or the Comfort Lodge ever again.)
This hotel has a door locking system that I had never experienced before. You don't get a key. Your room door locks electronically when you close it. When you return to the hotel, you push a button at the front door, they get a visual fix on you through a TV camera, buzz you in, then arrive at your room door with a key to open it. I forget the name of this place, and don't want to remember.
After this fun filled epic fail of the Hong Kong hospitality industry, we head out for dinner. Eating is always a sure thing in Hong Kong. We find a Thai restaurant a block away and have a great meal of pork satay, chicken curry and seafood and rice baked in a coconut. The last dish is a particularly yummy concoction with coconut flavor permeating the rice. A couple of large icy cold Singha beers and the days adventure becomes a bit more tolerable.
Mr. Schmooze from the hotel suggested we try taking the city bus that goes to the airport since it's the cheapest transport. It's only about 5 bucks, so after a crappy night's sleep, we are standing at the bus stop waiting. Sure enough, here it is. The bus has Wifi, and I'm able to diddle online while more passengers pile in at different stops.
The Hong Kong airport is very cool. It has the biggest shopping mall I've ever seen in an airport, but we don't have time to dawdle. It's Delta airlines to Tokyo and we get upgraded to business class. I take advantage of the great seat and legroom and try to regain some of the sleep I didn't get in the Discomfort Lodge.
Oh boy, Tokyo! I haven't been through Narita airport in a few years, but one of the things I remember is spending most of the layover waiting to go through security. Apparently the Japanese don't think that the security in any other airport matches theirs so everyone gets to wait in half a dozen looooong queues just to prove that their airport of origin detected all the cell phones and coins in their pockets, and large tubes of hand cream and Purel in their carry ons. (Nobody in Hong Kong or Tokyo has to take off their shoes! How can I feel safe on these flights?!?)
Surprise, there are virtually no lines at security! Well, not exactly surprise, since I had read that travel to Japan has dropped dramatically since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. We get through with plenty of time for lunch and a beer. We find a little cafe and get a couple of bowls of noodles and two beers. Japanese noodles are good, and the beer is icy cold Sapporo.
Narita airport also boasts the best toilet in the world. It has a heated seats, and a bidet that has electronic temperature and pressure adjustments. Unfortunately, I am unable to produce any action that would necessitate the use of this high tech wonder. I do ponder how a nation that could produce such a fine comfort device could allow such a nuclear fiasco to happen. I guess they got their priorities mixed up.
The Delta flight to Seattle is pleasant enough, and only 8 hours long. The personal movie systems stops working though, and the flight attendant announces that the hard drive has crashed. I'm just grateful that it isn't the plane's flight control system. I have a good book, my mini laptop loaded with True Blood episodes and enough fatigue to sleep a good 3 hours, so I don't mind about the movies. However, the airline feels so bad that they hand out hundred dollar vouchers good toward the next ticket with Delta. I'm a bit shocked, since it was only some movies, but they seem pretty intent on making everyone happy.
Customs in Seattle is a cinch, and after 10 months we are back in the US! There is one last leg on the journey though. My son and his family are out of town, and their home is over half an hour by car from the airport. I took a cab there one time and it was a $50 fare. The last thing I wanted to do was give fifty bucks to a rude Sikh again, so I hopped on Seattle's light rail which took me to the downtown transit tunnel where I transferred to a bus that took to within a block of their home. Woo hoo! I've arrived!
I stroll down to the local market and pick up some local whole grain bread, salami, chips, salsa, IPA, and Tillamook cheddar and have myself some quality time before the family arrives that evening.
Some post arrival reflections:
I check my bank statement and find that the noodles and beer in Tokyo cost thirty seven dollars. Note to self, know the yen to dollar exchange rate before spending any more money in Japan.
Delta is an OK airline, and is smart enough to have an attendant who is 6 feet tall, has silver blonde hair and ice blue eyes on their Tokyo to Seattle flight.
Why does Hong Kong, after being returned to China still drive on the wrong side of the road?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Chinese Fire Drill

I have one week left to work at the Middle School. My time here is spent testing the 2400 students in the sophomore class on their pronunciation. It's a challenging process of trying to make an evaluation of each student in an abbreviated time. The classes this year have a little over 60 kids in a class, and I have 40 minutes to test them. I pass out test sheets with ten words or sentences and grade on a scale of 5 to 10 their pronunciation of the following sounds: "V", "Sh", "Th", and "L" when it appears at the end of a word. I also listen for them to finish words that end in "M" and "P".
For example, I use this sentence, "Everybody loves somebody sometime". A complete fail would be, "Errybody luz sunbody suntine." A couple of other common errors are "Meoh" for "Meal", and "Mudder" for "Mother". The last sentence is "It's time to stop," which often becomes, "Iss tine to stah."
Most of the students' primary language is Cantonese, which is completely different than Mandarin. Most words end in sounds that do not require the lips to compress, so M becomes N and P disappears completely. V is non existent, as well as Sh and Th. Since most of their English teachers are from this region, these errors are perpetuated. The lack of decent pronunciation can make an otherwise decent English speaker difficult to understand.
Most students do well, since I have been drilling this into them for the last semester, along with presentations on American culture, including basketball, school differences, Lady Gaga, guns, and eating habits.
I'm looking forward to my new job. The middle school has been an excellent experience, and I've enjoyed many of my students and classes. But it's factory teaching on a massive scale, and when you are the only foreign teacher, you are very limited to what you can do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Click the pix for larger picture.

Copyright infringement abounds in the Middle Kingdom. There are bootleg videos, CD's, sportswear, cosmetics, fashion, sports gear, sports clothing, electronics, watches, designer anything, software, and God knows what else. Bogus products, fakes, shams, copies, copies of bogus copies, and really crappy stuff with a poorly copied designer label.
It's a zillion dollar industry. Phil Knight would love all the Nike swooshes on every imaginable article of clothing. You can find Adidas, Nike, Converse, Levis and Calvin Klein all printed on the same garment. Fake iPhones and Windows operating systems are readily available. In my city it is nigh impossible to find a legitimate DVD. Everything is a copy.
American and European governments are decrying the lost revenues from all of this pirating. They have a legitimate gripe, but I'm afraid it's a losing proposition, like the American War on Drugs. It's an ingrained part of the culture here. The average person here is not going to spend a month's income on a real pair of Nikes, nor are they going to pay for a real iPod. Remember, this is the country that invented the cheap Chinese crap that you get at Wal Mart, and it's even cheaper here. I'm afraid that Apple, Nike, and all the other overpriced name brand companies will have to be content to sell to the well to do class. Those people do want the real thing, for that ever important face enhancement.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Children's Day

June first is Children's Day. Primary schools get the day off, festivities abound, and kids get spoiled rotten. There was a big show at one of the parks that my future employer was involved in, and I took the day off to go.
It was a sweltering morning, with no breeze whatsoever. We set up tables to tout the kindergartens, and especially our newest offering, the International Kindergarten. There was a big show by kids from various schools, balloons, ice cream, soft drinks and junk food. Dozens of parents mobbed our table to find out about our school and even more kids swarmed for the free balloons on a stick (with the school name and number on them!). I spent the better part of two hours operating a cheap plastic hand pump filling balloons while sweat dripped off my nose. I was very professional!
Parents here are very concerned for their kids' futures and will get the kid enrolled in the best preschools and kindergartens, beginning the child's long journey to successful adulthood. That day we saw some very good performances from very small people, already showing hard work and discipline. Afterwards, they were rewarded with trips to McDonald's, movies, arcades, swimming pools, toy stores and any other kid decadence available in China.


Touting our school.

Baby getting her future planned.

While the Tiger Mother plans for her cub's future, the cub thinks "balloon".

Click the pix for larger picture.