Sunday, February 14, 2010

Open Letter To The Riders Of Bus 167, circa 5pm

Dear Bus 167 Passengers,

You may have noticed me in recent weeks: a short girl, with big hair, cursing at you in strange tongues (you probably didn't know I was cursing at you, but there you go, I've spilled the beans.) I realize that I am a newcomer amongst your ranks, however I have ridden a multitude of buses in faraway lands, and I am here to tell you:

There is a better way to do this.

I know this will be hard to believe, but hear me out. It is in fact possible for all of us to get through the evening commute without being pushed, shoved, elbowed, trampled, or poked in the eye. Now, I'm only a guest here, and I'm all for cultural relativity, and respecting different ways, and not throwing a fit every time a pizza shows up sprinkled with corn nibblets or drizzled with sweet gooey mayonnaise. Notwithstanding, in this instance I truly believe that if we could all just follow these few little gems of advice that I have to offer, we would all have a more peaceful ride home and arrive at our destinations free of acrimony or bruising. This fantasy is already a reality in some parts of the world, a reality that could be ours.

But before I explain to you, dear passengers, just how this utopia can become our reality, I would like to describe the circumstances of my induction in to your cohort, the circumstances that have prompted this open letter.

It had been a very long day. Just a few days in to my new job, I'd realized that most of what came out of my mouth went in to my students little brains as gibberish, and had re-imagined my lesson plans in to a series repetitious songs with lots of actions and hand clapping, a slapstick gag here and there, and games simple enough to be won without understanding how to play. Worn out from all the bouncing around, chilled to the bone having spent all day in unheated classrooms, fingertips numb from cold chalk, and desperate for a human-style toilet with some form of door or stall divider, I stood at the curb anxiously awaiting bus number 167, the bus that would drop me magically on my doorstep. My first few days on the job I'd taken the subway home, but this involved a twenty minute walk to the subway station and an inconvenient line transfer, so I was glad when I learned of a bus route that would take me more or less door to door. And so I waited for said bus, fantasizing about my warm apartment, with its fuzzy cow slippers, private toilet, and maybe even a hot meal there waiting for me (the benefit of Justin being a homemaker working from home).

By the time bus 167 pulled up, fellow passengers, we were quite a crowd milling around, and the bus was already packed. Lucky for me (or so I thought) the bus just so happened to roll to a stop directly in front of me - I was face to face with the door, my nose separated from it by just inches. But the instant the doors thwacked open, a deluge of people swarmed around me, and the human wave propelled itself forward with such ruthless clawing, an unstoppable force replete with flailing Uggs and hunchback grannies using their bony elbows to their fullest potential.

It all happened so quickly, and when the storm had passed, with all of you securely boarded, I alone was left on the curb. All 30 billion of you managed to grease yourselves on to that vehicle, and somehow couldn't fit just one more? One more who was first in line? The doors thwacked shut, inches from my nose, just the way they'd opened, and I alone was left to wait in the cold night.

And if that didn't give me enough to whine about when I finally did make it home, the next evening was the same story. Again, I was violently pushed aside and left at the curb, while all of you squeezed and fought your way home.

By my third attempt, I was fed up. I decided that that night I was going to get on that bus no matter what. The moment the bus pulled up, I furiously and indiscriminately flung astray anyone who came near me or even looked like they might try. Taking my cue from the 90 year old ladies clutching bags stuffed with vegetables (the most cutthroat passengers by far), I hoisted up those elbows and resolved that no one would pass them. None of this subtle shuffling ahead "accidentally" on purpose - I raised my palms to chest level and pushed.

I'm really not normally an aggressive person, dear passengers, but it seemed like there actually wouldn't be any other way for me to get on the bus. Violence was the only option. I would have to be merciless. It occurred to me, however, that this was not really the best long term solution - after all, what if everyone behaved this way? What would happen then? And I think you all know the answer to that one, fellow passengers, as we experience this together every evening. It isn't pretty.

After that, I attempted another tactic: guilt. This time, instead of pushing immediately, I waited for someone else to strike the first blow, then pushed back just a little (the big hair is helpful here - not as pointy as an elbow, but still, no one likes a mouth full of hair), followed by a very dirty look. So far, I've succeeded in getting ONE person to say sorry. Progress is too slow.

And so, fellow passengers, I would like to propose a solution to benefit us all. What I propose may seem radical to some of you, unreasonable even, but I beg you to hear me out none the less. What I propose is that while we are waiting for the bus, or when it is arriving, we could do something that people call LINING UP. It's easy. We stand one behind the other, and let the person in front board first, the second one second, and so on. The best thing about it is that this strategy can be used for all kinds of things, not only for buses. Used on a large scale, it could revolutionize life in Shanghai as we know it. Some people will get on right away, and some people will not, just like now, only we won't have to claw at one another to decide who is who. You will be able to take your children on the bus without having them torn from you in a stampede. We will make it home without cursing, flinging anyone down steps, or backing in to them with a head of big hair. It really is a good idea, this "lining up", and we will be a model for all the other buses. We can do it, if we all just work together. Come on people, you're Communists for christ sake... mass organization of the people, this should be right up your alley!

My second proposal will no doubt seem counter-intuitive at first, but take my word, it has already been adopted by countless bus riders in other parts of the world. I know: You want to get on the bus as quickly as possible, so it only makes sense to force yourself aboard right away, despite butting up against a wall of equally ardent and unyielding passengers wanting to get off. I realize that this sounds logical, but what I propose is to wait for the passengers to get off before you get on. I know it sounds crazy, but it works. There will be more space on the bus, so you will be able to get on faster, and the best part is that you can do it all without getting locked in a heated scrum or winning a wrestling match with a construction worker and his Mickey Mouse duffel bag full of cement. And you could get off that way too! Just imagine!

Fellow passengers, it won't take much to make my vision a reality. Accept my call to action: Let's do this together, comrades!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


It's Chinese New Year's Eve, and there are fireworks going off literally everywhere. Right out there on sidewalks and busy streets, little kids romping around the explosions. This has been going on for the past three days, causing near-choking on my neti and broken dishes with the startle of each boom. But now they are close enough to my 5th story apartment window that I can actually feel the heat of each explosion from my living room sofa. Sounds like a firing squad. ACK.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


doesn't she look a little like Reese Witherspoon?

I’ll try not to go on and on with this one, and permit those who hear the live version to bear the brunt of my ruminations about snot. The thing is, snot-related issues make up a substantial piece of the pie that is my life these days, so if we’re going to be friends, blogosphere, you’re gonna have to hear about it.

I have allergies. I’m allergic to something mysterious that is present in every home I’ve lived in, in every season, in a variety of countries and phases of the moon. Probably dust or pollution or something else annoyingly omnipresent. Every so often I’ll have a couple of days or weeks where I’m inexplicably normal, but otherwise sneezy snottiness is a permanent condition. Over the counter allergy pills used to fix me right up, but in the past few months booger has really taken over my existence, settled right in to the corner office, and shows no inkling toward resignation.

I thought I’d tried everything. I tried pills of all varieties, and quadruple doses of pills of all varieties. I tried inhalers. On the advice of homeopathic Dr. Nicole, I tried taking copious amounts of vitamin C – advice being to “gradually increase your daily dosage until it gives you diarhea, then take it down a notch”, I was up to munching 12 of those orange flavoured tablets a day, still snotty, no sign of reaching my limit. I even tried cleaning my apartment. For a little while I tried wearing a surgical mask at home all the time, which made me think of Hannibal Lector with his muzzle, and also scared Justin a little. It might have worked anyways, but I couldn’t get it to stay on while I was asleep.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t get through a 35-minute teaching period without blowing my nose 85 times, which inevitably caused the whole class to burst out laughing – I know they’re just stupid little kids, but for some reason there’s nothing as infuriating as being mocked by a room full of 7 year olds. Every garbage can in my house was overflowing with tissues and my nose was so clogged that my ears felt blocked. I couldn’t breath through my nose at all, so I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t even taste my food.

At this point, I became slightly obsessed and started spending hours online researching alternative allergy remedies, sifting through all kinds of quack ideas, and hippy granola cure-alls. (That’s how I came upon that wacky “clean your house” idea.)

Anyway, I’m proud to announce that all those hours were not in vain. I have found my miracle cure, I’m sure of it, in the form of a Neti pot. If you’re not familiar with Neti, basically it’s a contraption that looks a little bit like Aladdin’s Lamp. You fill it up with a luke-warm weak salt water solution, stick the spout in one nostril, lean over a sink, and tip your head to the side at just the right angle as you pour the water in to your nose so that it comes out the other nostril. Then you do the same on the other side. Weird, huh?

It’s actually an ancient Indian thing, practiced by people who do yoga. I guess the idea is that by keeping your body in good condition, flushing out toxins, and improving breathing, your mind is clearer and you can meditate better. Not to blaspheme against the Neti, which IS going to change my life, but – mental clarity, shmental shmarity, I’m interested in its attack on snot.

The Neti will solve all of my problems. I’m sure of it. It flushes all the gook out of the nose. If you do it daily, it also gets your cilia (the little sweepy hairs in your nasal passages) working properly again, since they get sort of paralyzed if you have chronic nose issues like me. It also clears all the dust and pollution and mystery allergens out of your system, and helps with asthma symptoms. It also does your homework and takes out the trash and cooks your dinner and handles that Sunday night phone call from your mother.

It’s the perfect solution. It makes so much sense. I can’t see how it could NOT work.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that all the Neti pots appear to be made in China, they don’t seem to actually be sold here. I ordered one online from Wales, along with some non-iodized salt (can’t find that here either), and paid a hefty shipping fee, but hey, the Neti is going to change my life, so what’s a few extra kuai?

And then I waited for my package to arrive. I kid you not, I thought about that Neti every day, almost all day. I even started contemplating objects that could be converted in to a makeshift Neti to use in the interim. I couldn’t walk past a teapot vendor without eyeing the spouts to see if one was nostril size.

Now the wait is finally over... my Neti pot has arrived!

I’m a little bit nervous, because the whole thing reminds me of people who can put a strand of spaghetti up one nostril and have it come out the other, which freaks me out. Justin will be relieved to see the end of the ominous surgical mask, though Daniel sees this as the beginning of my “descent into lala land.”

I’m off to try it out, and will let you know how it goes!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

And now for a crowd pleaser...

Like any successful circus act, I try to begin each course I teach with a crowd pleaser. And nothing elicits as reliably entertaining, baffling, and bizarre material as this one simple question: "What's your name?"

Don't get me wrong, the students answer in utter earnestness. Which is exactly what makes it such excellent cocktail party fodder later on.

Unless you are, like me, a fake teacher in China (which you probably aren't, since my blog is banned in China - that's right, I'm BANNED, like Salman Rushdie. Doesn't that make you want to read more?) you are probably wondering what could possibly be so goddamn hilarious about such a benign question.

Allow me to explain. The Chinese language demands a lot from the English speaker that our tongues and throats and ears are just not equipped for, which makes most names nearly impossible for many of us to pronounce correctly. So most Chinese people who have even minimal contact with Westerners or ESL give themselves (and/or their children) an "English name." In a perfect world, I would just have my students use their own true names. After all, isn't it a bit lingo-centric to expect others to change something so closely tied to cultural and personal identity, just because it's inconvenient for us? However, in reality, my attempts generally result in accidentally addressing someone as an age-inappropriate body part or household appliance, inevitably causing classroom decorum to give way to raucous laughter and ridicule at my expense. Not a good way to command respect and authority. Never let a 3rd grader know that they can do something you can't. Trust me, they can be ruthless.

So, English names it is. Only these names are chosen by someone who has absolutely no means whatsoever to gage what is an even marginally "normal" name. (And I'm not one who usually champions the "normal". )

Here they are, some of my favourite "English names":
  • Cute-sy names abound. Most commonly Coco, Candy, Mickey, Mimi. Even Juicy, though I'm not sure you'd call that cute-sy. And of course, Kitty. As in Hello Kitty.
  • Bonker (I couldn't keep a straight face for that one.)
  • Skeletor (The parents wanted a "strong" name.)
  • Rambo (A little shit disturber. The mother was constantly chasing after him, "Rambo, get back here!!")
  • Lots of old man names for pre-schoolers, like Abner or Wilson or Harry.
  • Riskle. In fact, this child was trying to say Race Car, but talks like he's got a mouth full of marbles, and it came out sounding like "Riskle", which is what the teacher wrote down on the class list. The kid, not having a clue about spelling, never disputed it, but surely continues to think his name is indeed Race Car.
  • Money. Money.
  • Jump
  • Toy
  • Fog
  • Tiger, and Lion (both quite common)
  • McQueen (as in Steve, I assume?)
  • Bobo (I once had a class with two kids named Bobo.)
At my new public school job (in contrast to private language centres where huge sums of money are doled out to ensure the students learn something), the level of English is so abysmal that the question "What's your name?" is often met with a resounding reply of "What's your name!" A whole new challenge. In a class of 45 students, 20 don't have English names at all. This leaves me to either gamble on attempting their Chinese names, or give them a new English moniker, which they will surely forget within five minutes, if they ever understood that it was meant to be their name to begin with. Of the remaining 25 students, six of the girls are named Alice, and five of the boys are named Peter. Effectively rendering the names useless, for my purposes.

Normally, I'm all for individual attention and fostering the teacher-student relationship. But last semester, I taught a total of over 800 students. So these days I'm settling for "Hey you!"

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Healthier than beer, cheaper than scuba diving, and more exciting than a stamp collection!

My story was exciting. I moved to Taiwan in July 2006, young and alone, naive but curious. I met people from all over the world, learned a new language (sort of, please don't test me on it), and travelled through nine Asian countries. I climbed a volcano, dove to the bottom of the sea, and danced in the sand 'til the sun came up. I rode motorcycles, jeepneys, bemos, tuk-tuks, horse-carts, and donkeys. I saw a whole roasted dog on display in six pieces, and a blobby brain on a meat hook.

Now I'm a fake English teacher in Shanghai, which basically means that I get paid to do a little song and dance on a podium in front of 50 second graders, most of whom hear my carefully prepared routine as "HELLO blah blah. Blah OK? blah blah blah ELEPHANT blah. BLAH!"

When I'm not "teaching" I amble about, trying to figure out what the hell is going on around me, why anyone would want to eat a chicken's anus, and where the heck all the curly hair products are.

So, if you were expecting some National Geographic culturally insightful and universally fascinating revelations here, you may be disappointed. This blog is about NOW. Blog-worthy or not. And, "why?" you might ask. "Why blog the minutia of your daily existence, cantankerous attitudes, and detailed descriptions of nasal functioning, when you had all that great adventurous material in the palm of your hand?"

Well, here it is. I got dressed at 2pm today. It's Tuesday. I just finished Season 1 of Six Feet Under (again), and I'm not going to tell you when I started it. In short, I need a hobby. I'm told beer doesn't count, and firmly believe that people who say they feel great after a vigorous workout are lying to themselves.

So this is it. My BLOG.