Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Perils and Pleasures (or ploys?) of a Third Grade Classroom

(But only some of them)

As it turns out, not all third graders are assholes after all. This is good news, not only because it obviously affects my daily life as a teacher, but also because I was beginning to get a bit worried that if I ever had children, I might not be able to resist the urge to throw my spawn down a well on its eighth birthday.

And so my hat goes off to the parents of all the third-grade assholes I've known, for their personal strength and resistance (or perhaps for their inability to locate a well).  And to the parents of the nicer kiddlets, who have reassured me that with proper training, not all third graders need inspire an appetite for strangulation.

My stereotype of the Third Grade Beast turns out to be just that; a stereotype. But while stereotypes are certainly not applicable in every case, they do come from somewhere. Well, so does this one...

... Like Becky in Taiwan, who would run wildly around the room screeching like the Tasmanian Devil with a crazed look in her eye, foaming at the mouth as she swiped classmates' belongings off their desks and scribbled on their homework. Alternatively, she would insist on spending entire class periods under her desk, engrossed in some project that I never could quite figure out. She was probably building a bomb under there. She also liked to bring insects in to the class in paper cups. According to her mother, she had an interest in natural science. Yeah. Right. I say she had an interest in Gross.

Then there was a Shanghai class who would throw things, call me Big Nose, and try to trip me or slap my butt as I walked by. As you can see, I really commanded respect in that room. I felt like Mr. Ramjam, the substitute teacher we tormented throughout the 80s and 90s, and experienced a new empathy for what must have been a highly demoralizing career. (Fortunately, I only had to teach that class for a month.)

While the first and second graders were still young and cute enough to procure whole-hearted enthusiasm for whatever last-minute minimal effort activity I'd thrown together for them, and the fifth graders were mature enough to keep the mocking behind my back where it belongs, I concluded that third graders really were just assholes.

Enter my new school this semester - a breath of fresh air. As the only non-Chinese person on campus, I still attract a lot of attention, and still have children chasing and calling after me everywhere I go. But instead of "lawai, lawai!" (foreigner), I get "Good morning!" and "Welcome to Shanghai!" When I enter a classroom, instead of Big Nose I hear "Harro Ms. Jun!" Some students are even starting to pick up on the fact that Ms. Jun was their previous teacher, rather than a suffix added to "Harro", and are actually starting to use my real name!

I don't mean to sound overly cynical here, but I can't help wondering if this is somehow a trap...

Monday, March 22, 2010

My Weekend: Chinese Bubble Wrap, Creative Mess-Making, and Le Fashion Faux-Pas

Friday night:

Went to a club that was completely swathed in bubble wrap. I kid you not. Floors, ceiling, everything - covered. It was heaven. (Except for the crappy music, expensive drinks, and crowd of two on the dance floor going crazy for the crappy music of course.)

At first I thought, "wow, this is some high end bubble wrap, like Italian bubble wrap, or something," cause you could just press it, like, anywhere, just a bit, and it would go SNAP-SNAP-SNAP-SNAP-SNAPETTY-SNAP. But then I thought, "Wait a second. The actual point of bubble wrap is to pad stuff. So its probably not really supposed to snap so easily. Must be Made In China after all."

I still wanted to stuff my purse with it though.

Saturday night:

Stayed home painting pictures. I'm not actually good at this or anything, it's just fun to muck around and mix the colours and all. So my "picture" is basically the end result of ruining everything, fixing it by painting something new on top, ruining it again, repeat. The masterpiece isn't finished yet, but so far it involves a swimming eyeball, a floating island in the sky, a lot of flying fish, and a skyscraper growing out of a fireball. Who knows what it will be by the time its done. Daniel drunkenly but honestly told me it was disgusting. I still kind of like it though.

Sunday night:

Went to a free concert sponsored by the Alliance Francaise. (Keeping an eye out for events with potentially free booze these days - art openings are usually good for free wine and nibbles, and a few weeks ago the Dutch Cultural Centre had a party with free Heineken and gouda cheese. No crackers though.) This time it was a French electro/hip hop group. Featuring an Axel Rose-wannabe guitarist who desperately needed a haircut, along with an MC and a dj who desperately needed t-shirts four sizes smaller. It was alright, mostly cause it was free. I had trouble getting past the giant t-shirts though.

And now it's back to the kiddlets...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Believe It: 9am Just Got Worse

I drink coffee on the subway.

I write my lesson plans on the subway.

I eat bananas on the subway.

Sometimes I even blow my nose on the subway.

But there are certain things that SHOULD NOT BE DONE ON THE SUBWAY.

And as you have probably guessed from my excessive capitalization, people are doing 'em anyway. Ugh, people...

When I'm on my way to work in the morning it's, well... morning. I am not good with morning. I'm about as perky as a damp leaf of wilted lettuce that's been forgotten in the bottom of the fridge for two weeks. I'm about as tolerant as lactose (and y'all know what an intolerant bigot lactose can be.)

So you can only imagine how I felt when this adorable young couple sat down next to me as I ate my banana, and the female portion of said couple proceeded to undertake the task of squeezing her boyfriend's pimples. And, at his insistence (not that she seemed to mind) this went on for about ten minutes. Maybe longer, because that's when I got off the train. When she was finished with one, he felt along his jaw line and requested that she finish the whole set. She started off sitting next to him, but then crouched down in front of him to get a better angle. It was totally and completely repulsive, and I wanted to barf. The worst part about it was that they were being all lovey-dovey about the whole thing. I repeat: totally and completely repulsive. I kept searching my fellow passengers' faces to see if I was the only one who was totally repulsed - only one lady looked grossed out, but she could have just been a sour-puss in general. Idk.*
Then, later that same day, I saw a woman clipping her fingernails on the subway. Just letting the clippings fall on the ground willy-nilly. Not quite as repulsive, but still strange. Biting, I could understand, because that's spontaneous. But clipping means she actually carries nail clippers around with her, planning to groom in public. There's premeditation involved.

I also once saw a man shaving with an electric shaver on the subway. (I saw a man doing the same thing in a McDonald's - at his table, not in the bathroom - and yet another man doing the same at a fruit stand.)

Now here's the thing. City officials are trying to crack down on bad habits in public places, so as to make a good impression when the Expo starts here in a couple of months and Shanghai is flooded with visitors. But they are talking about things like people walking around in their pyjamas (a funny little Shanghainese quirk). I would actually LOVE to jump on the public pyjama bandwagon. Why can't they leave the pro-pyjama set alone and focus on REPULSIVE PUBLIC PIMPLE SQUEEZING? (Or nail clipping, or shaving, or indiscriminately throwing people out of your way or not stopping at red lights or throwing garbage out the window?)

And one more piece of advice, Shanghai:


Stand left, walk right.

*Idk means "I don't know" in Cool Internet Acronym-Speak. I read it on another blog, and then googled it 'cause I had no clue what it meant. Or rather "Idk" what it meant. Anyway, I just wanted to use it to sound as cool and bloggy as everyone else.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mongolian Cow Sour Milk Supergirls VS Blair Waldorf

The Chinese government is a little bit like The Bitchy Popular Girl in high school - her status secured not so much because everyone loves her, but because everyone is aware of the unpleasant consequences of going up against her. (At least that's what it's like on Gossip Girl. Not that I've ever watched Gossip Girl, of course. I swear.) What I'm trying to say with this shaky analogy is that political dissent is not tolerated here. It is actually illegal to contradict or undermine the Communist party and its current policies.

So. I've been thinking about instigating a democracy movement. Can't leave Asia without causing at least one international incident, right?

It will all be below the radar, of course, beginning with the mobilization of my first, second and third grade students.  Their oblivion to perpetual post-nasal drip indicates that they're not quite alert enough to catch on to my plan, and with semi-developed malleable brains to boot, they will make the ideal base of supporters.

My re-education program will have to be clandestine at first, at least until we are strong enough to defend ourselves (which could be a while, given that my most senior members are eight year olds). Fortunately, Kitty and Alices #1-5 are deceptively innocent looking, and you'd never guess that little Willy is thinking anything at all. And, luckily, censorship works in my favour here: since blogger is already blocked in China, I can openly share our progress here without any fear of reprisal.

Now, where did I get the idea that my 35-minute "class", which usually opens with a rousing rendition of "If You're Happy And You Know It" and takes it's cues from there, could develop in to a social force to be reckoned with? The short answer - reality TV.  The long answer -The Mongolian Cow Sour Milk Supergirls Contest.

Supergirls was China's first American Idol-type show, sponsored by a dairy company, hence the full length title. Now, you probably never thought that vapid and shallow reality tv programming could have any deeper meaning, or become a force for social change beyond opening the doors of celebrity to any narcissistic extrovert willing to loll around a tropical island in a bikini. (Sorry, I've been out of touch with tv since Michael passed out in the fire on Survivor, so that's the best example I can come up with.) The Chinese government, on the other hand, saw something else there, and come to think of it, they were right.

Think about it: the Idol winner is chosen by a democratic process. Sure, the judges put in their elite expert two cents, but the final decision is made by a popular vote. In a country where the general public has never participated in electing their leaders, where they are told that this is not a good way for decisions to be made, it is quite something to have a television program that proclaims to select the nation's next big star by a popular vote.

And, as the authorities feared, the show was wildly popular, seemingly largely because of the voting process. The first season finale had about 400 million viewers (as compared to about 12 million for the UK version), with votes pouring in, and had the public so stirred up that fans actually formed booster clubs and canvassed shopping malls to rally up votes for their favourite contestants. Some say that it was the largest-scale voting exercise that China had ever seen. The public was drawn to the idea of having a say, of being able to make a difference, and the winner became a sensation overnight.

The implications were not lost on the government, and in China everything must pass through their censors before it makes it on to the public stage. The authorities voiced their disapproval, saying that the show was vulgar, manipulative, and undermined socialist values. They said it encouraged youth to be overly competitive and to strive for instant celebrity (rather than that communisty focus on conformity, and on valuing collectivity over individuality). Attempting to point out the failure of democratic decision making, state media commented, "How come an imitation of a democratic system ends up selecting the singer who has the least ability to carry a tune?"

The show continued for another season, but with new restrictions. To begin with (even in the first series), the broadcasters never actually used the word "vote", having deemed it too inflammatory from the get go. Instead, viewers were asked to send in "messages of support". In the subsequent season, new rules were applied to clothes, hair, and performances so that they would not be "vulgar", and the judges were instructed to be courteous, and not to embarrass contestants. Contestants were not to be overly competitive, everything was to remain "happy and friendly." Discouraging the appropriation of American culture, Chinese ballads and folk songs took the spotlight over hip hop/pop music (which had initially taken centre stage). Soon, the show was cancelled altogether.

In 2009, the show was brought back again, in its watered down version with even more restrictions, most notably, a new selection process. In addition to the four "expert" judges, a handful of judges (maybe five) are chosen from an audience of "common people" to submit a vote for the winner. The deluge of SMS and online voting is no longer. This is eerily similar to the Chinese political system, where there is only one party and a small group within it elects the leaders behind closed doors.

As for Supergirls, now that the viewers don't have a say, they don't seem to be particularly interested. When I googled the show, almost all of the information that came up was from the initial 2005 season. Without a voice, the public stopped paying attention, and it is my guess that that is exactly why the people are not given a voice in politics.

Point being - social change can come about through sneaky and unexpected places, which is what the Chinese Powers That Be realized when they saw the Supergirls phenomenon. If the authorities thought that this was an influence worth worrying about, than it probably was. People will get new ideas in all kinds of ways.

So, from now on, my kiddies are voting on EVERYTHING: which class activity to do next, which song to sing today, who the team leader should be, whatever.

P.S. I've also started making all the games boys against girls, and then subtly skewing it so that the girls always win.

All in the name of building a better future.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ode To Neti

Her spout curved, smooth, and blue
Seawater; soothing, warm,
Oh snot, she'll make you rue
the day that you were born

p.s. do you think the folks over at Shop Neti might pay me for this?

A new semester, a new nose

 Potential Soulmate?

Turns out most of you are more twisted than I had previously thought - far from being grossed out, it seems that people actually do want to hear about my snot. (If you just said "bleck," click here to catch up. I promise, you too will be swept up in the suspense, and return hungry for more snot related news.)

Two weeks in to a daily Neti routine, I'm happy to report that it really is all I dreamed it would be. It feels a little funny at first, but it looks even funnier. Remember the photo I posted last time? Well, its WAY funnier than that. Its actually more like this
but even funnier, because instead of that girl, its me. At first I kept wanting to look up to see it in the mirror, causing salt water to leak in to my throat, but I've since learned how to catch a peek while still keeping my chin tucked in. Oddly satisfying, that smoothly flowing stream - like the satisfaction of snapping one last hidden bubble when you thought the wrap was all snapped out. Without pills, sprays, or surgical masks, I can breathe, smell and taste. I feel like I'm strolling in a warm sea breeze all day. (Salt water residue, I guess.) I think I've even awakened my Ajna Chakra (a heavy sleeper, at that), and reached a higher state of consciousness. Several in fact.

It's like I have a new nose.

The only problem is that I went back to work this week, which will sort of interfere if I need a mid-day Neti. I'm considering doing it in Starbucks, which functioned as my bathroom oasis first semester when I couldn't bring myself to pee at school - in a trough, in an open room in the presence a bunch of primary school kids. Think of it, I was mocked just for blowing my nose in class; can you imagine the ramifications to my authority status if they'd seen me with my pants around my ankles? Not to mention that it was about zero degrees in that school (no heating), and I couldn't bear the thought of taking off my pants. I've used many a horrendous toilet in my travels, but this one just wasn't going to happen. No way. Enter Starbucks, my saviour with its clean human-style private toilets, heating, and reliable supply of toilet paper.

My new school this semester has marginally better facilities, so I was planning on going back to my sanctimonious snubbing of the evil corporation, but while the new school bathrooms are usable, I'm still not sure it would be totally appropriate to Neti there. As the only foreigner in this huge institution, I get enough laughing and pointing as it is. So I may just have to sell my soul to The Man, and go back to Starbucks. In the meantime, I'm hoping that the Neti will work its magic without a midday swish.

Ok, I'll stop now, before I have to change the blog tag-line to "All Neti, All The Time...."