Friday, February 24, 2017

Star and Torch Competition

A couple of weeks ago, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream I didn't know I had. I got to be Simon Cowell in a televised Chinese talent competition. Well, I was probably more like Randy since I'm nicer than Simon, but whatever.

After several months of visa nightmares causing us to not have work, everything finally got worked out making it legal for us to work. However, by that time it was so close to the end of the school semester, we couldn't go back into the schools. So, our employer found ways to keep us busy. They signed me up to be a judge at an English language competition. All the information I had was "Pack a bag. You'll be there for a few days."

I have a Master's in Teaching English to non-native speakers, so it made sense that they would ask me to do this. I pictured a spelling bee-type atmosphere where kids would be quizzed on proper grammar, syntax and pronunciation. I could not have been more wrong.

First, I was picked up by a bus that had about 50 people on it already. OKAY? That threw my expectations off a bit. We then drove around Beijing picking up a few more people. Once we got on the road, it took about four hours to arrive at our destination.

Citic Guoan Grand Epoch City - Chaoyangmen Hotel
Alright! My idea of what this was took a few more hits. This doesn't look like the type of place where a common spelling bee would occur.

As soon as we got off the bus, teams of people from the hotel swarmed out and started identifying who the bus passengers were. A young Chinese man walked up to me and asked if I was Brett Minor. When I nodded my head, he immediately grabbed all my bags while a girl asked for my passport. In broken English, he asked me to follow him as the girl disappeared into the crowd.

He led me into the hotel and we walked through seemingly endless corridors until we came to my room. The door was already open and the girl who had taken my passport was standing inside. She explained that she had used my passport to check me into my room and promptly returned it along with my room key. As she left, she told me to report to the ballroom in one hour.

The hotel room was bigger than my entire apartment and I was really beginning to wonder what I had signed on for, but I was quickly learning that I would be well taken care of for the next several days.

After unpacking and relaxing for bit, I headed to the ballroom and was pleased to find other English-speaking judges were part of this also. They had judges from America, Canada, England, Ukraine, Albania, Samoa and Israel in addition to all the Chinese judges. This was no small competition.

We were all ushered into a meeting room where their expectations were explained to us. Over the course of the next few days, over 4,000 youth from all over China would be coming to compete. This event consisted of two parts. The primary purpose was to showcase their English speaking and comprehension. The second was to display a talent they had prepared. Our job was to judge them on their English ability as well as their talent.

Each judging panel consisted of seven judges.
  • Three English teachers from China
  • Two Chinese artists (actors, musicians, etc)
  • Two native English-speaking ESL teachers
 Because of the huge numbers of contestants entered in this event, it would be showcased in five different areas simultaneously. At this rate, it would still take four days to complete.

The following day, I was taken to my room to begin judging.

WOW! This place is huge!
This is not a small competition.
 Starting at 8 a.m., the contestants started showing us what they could do. We saw kids ranging from 5 to 16 years old and witnessed a variety of different kinds of acts. Some came out in groups and did short plays. Some recited poetry. I watched two eight year old kids do a scene from Hamlet. Many of them danced, but the majority of them sang. And since they knew this was an English competition, they often chose American songs.


This girl nailed the talent portion, but (as hard as it may be to believe) she could barely speak English. During the Q&A section, she had difficulty understanding the questions being asked.

As great as that performance was, for every spot like that one, there were dozens like this.


As cute as a lot of these kids were, it soon became apparent that they had limited knowledge of American songs. I heard the following songs several times:
  • Do Re Me (38 times) 
  • Justin Beiber songs (17 times)
  • Taylor Swift (13 times)
  • Lemon Tree (32 times)
  • You Raise Me Up (33 times)
  • Try Everything (27 times)
When it came to plays and dramas:
  • 23 different versions of Red Riding Hood
  • 26 versions of Three Little Pigs
  • 14 versions of Billy Goats Gruff
 Immediately after they showed us their talent, they would be given a screen to view whose contents were determined by their age.

Older kids got something like this.

Younger kids were given pictures.
And, yes, that's a kid holding dead dog.
The contestant would then have to say a few sentences or tell a short story using what was on the screen. This would showcase their ability to improvise independent speech rather than show us that they were good at memorizing words. They would then have to answer a couple of spoken questions asked by one of the judges. I was amazed at how many times a kid could get up and recite beautiful poetry with perfect pronunciation, but could then not actually be able to speak English. They were just memorized sounds.

Occasionally, a kid would just freeze or even start crying when we reached this portion of the competition. A child who was so confident a minute earlier doing their practiced routine didn't know what to do when faced with words he did not recognize. It was sometimes heartbreaking to watch.

 However, my favorite part was meeting all the kids and their parents. They were brought to us in waves. About 15 competitors at a time would enter the room and I would leave my chair to meet them all and try to calm their nerves before performing and I always jumped up as soon as a wave was finished to go congratulate them all. They had worked hard and been very brave to stand up in front of all of us.



Plus, with the TV cameras everywhere and the popularity of this competition, they saw us as celebrities. Even though I'm actually no one of importance, that was not how I was looked at by these kids. Taking the time to talk to them was very exciting. It was strange signing autographs for not only them, but their parents as well.

After hours, if any of us judges were spotted in a hallway, scores of people would surround us to get a little bit of our time. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us and get our WeChat (China's equivalent to Facebook) contact info. Late one evening, several of us were sitting around singing songs when a group of families walked through the room. Our private party was no longer private.


It was a fantastic experience. I made many new friends. Made a lot of great business contacts and was asked to come back and be a part of it next year. I can't wait.


Here is a collection of some of the other videos I took if you want to look at them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Vasectomy Diaries by Rodney LaCroix

A couple of weeks ago I received an advance copy of Rodney LaCroix's new book The Vasectomy Diaries.  I was over-the-top excited to receive this book before it was actually released because I have what my friends call "an over-inflated ego who loves to brag about his successes and connections." Personally, I just think they're all jealous for not being as awesome as me and I was thrilled to be able to mention that I know a published author well enough that he would send me an advance copy of his book all the way to China where he had to pay all that extra shipping to get it to me by email.

Despite my obvious success at being cool, I really was looking forward to reading this book. Not only have I experienced the particular procedure described in this book, but I've been a fan of Rodney's blog for years and have read every one of his books immediately upon release. Plus, this book is an expansion on a very funny chapter from his first book Things Go Wrong For Me.

I typically read after I crawl into bed at night and as soon as I started reading my wife asked what I was chuckling about. There were so many passages that made me laugh I ended up reading the entire book to her over the next few nights. Plus, she enjoyed watching my testicles try to crawl up into my body when I got to some of the more graphic and painful parts.

Rodney kept a diary throughout the entire procedure starting on the day he decided to have it done and was shamelessly honest about how little he knew about his own anatomy despite all the time he has spent playing with it. He also explores the psychological damage incurred by trusting one of your most precious body parts to strangers with cutlery.

Rodney covers everything in this book and quite a bit more:
  • Why children are horrible
  • Human reproductive knowledge he should have acquired in high school 
  • Embarrassing himself in front of attractive nurses
  • Shaving your bumpy nether regions
  • The joys of painkillers
  • Discovering that Advent calendars don't really apply to this situation
  • Why bags of frozen peas are better than ice
  • Scarlett Johansson is incredibly hot
  • Learning how much personal info to share with coworkers
  • Still knowing that children are horrible 
  • The benefits (and dangers) of man-scaping
Excerpt from the Man-scaping chapter

You will learn so many things that you never really wanted to know, but he does squeeze in a little bit of practical knowledge as well. I had this procedure done about five years ago and enjoyed reading Rodney's take on some of this bizarre process. Like Rodney, so much of it was lost on me at the time because my mind was too busy just trying to maintain the courage to keep moving forward. Anyone who's has this done will greatly appreciate the telling of his story. Any man who is considering having this done should read it to get a more light-hearted look at what is a scary procedure to even think about. I would also recommend this book to any person (man or woman) who enjoys a good laugh. Except for my neighbor Kirk. I hate him.


If you are interested in purchasing this book for Kindle, click this link: http://amzn.to/2k9szw6
 
For paperback, click here: http://amzn.to/2kx9S6V
 
Click here for Rodney's website: http://RodneyLacroix.com

And because Rodney is an egomaniac (like me), he begged me to include his Facebook and Twitter links as well.


 If you're one of those cheap people who will never spend money on things, I recommend following Rodney's Twitter page. You will get his jokes in your feed everyday for FREE. But don't tell my neighbor Kirk. I really hate him.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Control Is Addicting

For the last couple of months, my wife has been participating in a writing prompt and blog hop at Heading Home called Five Minute Friday. Basically, you use the prompt that is given to you and just write about that for five minutes without planning or editing. Just get the thoughts out.

Since I seem to be having trouble getting back on a writing schedule, I thought I would start doing some of these prompts. This is my first. This week's prompt is CONTROL.

OK. Five minutes starting now.



I moved to China with my wife four months ago and have really had to learn what it means to relinquish control. I have never really been one to have to control everything in my life. In fact, my wife likes to call me a "fly by the seat of my pants" type of person, but moving here where I do not know the language, have no idea what is going on with any of the conversations around me and can't even read the signs on the street or in stores has shown me how much I do like to have control of at least a few things in my life. Or at least how many things I take for granted.

Also, with the vast differences in cultural understands of various things, I have also had to relinquish control of how I am perceived by other people since there is SO SO SO much that we just do not understand about how people relate to each other.

Control is one of those areas where we are supposed to trust God and not try to do everything for ourselves, but it is not until all that you know is taken away from you that you realize how much you relied on yourself and didn't trust as much as you thought you did.

I'm slowly able to take a little more control of my life and not have to rely on the kindness of people that I have met here. It feels good to have a say in my own life again, but the more self-reliant I become, the less I relate to the community of people around me.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hijinks in Huairou

I don't know how well you have kept up with Red and I on Facebook and the blogs, but we have had a bit of a rough way to go since arriving in China. We have definitely had an adventure, but the last couple of months have sucked. I spent the last three days trying to come up with a better way of saying that, but the terminology just doesn't exist.

I will give the details of what and who has caused the major suckage in a soon-to-come future post, but for now all you need to know is that it involved two months of us not receiving any pay. If you are one of the many, many people of this world who are of the adult persuasion who have bills and other financial obligations that must be met, then you probably understand and can even empathize with us and my usage of the work suck. It sucked.

But…it is all better now.

It really is. Once again, I will save that story for another post. For now, let me show you the results of things getting better.


Red and I spent an incredible couple of days in this student center just outside Shipian Village. This village sits on the eastern border of the Shentangyu Scenic Area in Yanqi Town which is in the Huairou district 90 minutes northeast of Beijing and near a portion of the Great Wall. Try saying that sentence without practicing.

This trip is the annual meeting for the teachers of one of the schools we are affiliated with. They send everyone up there for two days to give the annual report (a meeting we were thankfully excused from). This meeting took about four hours and was conducted entirely in Chinese (something we have come to learn is fairly common in China). We were so thankful to not have to attend. Although, without the requirement of the meeting, there was really no reason for us to be there at all. They are just trying very hard to keep us happy. You'll just have to trust me. I will tell that story soon.

As soon as the meeting concluded, everyone had a late lunch and then the party started. Plus, with the Chinese New Year about to start, it really was a party. The beer and wine flowed freely and we've come to learn that doing business in China is all about building relationships. So, we dove in.


After a few hours of drinking, the crowd moved into a back room with a stage where it was time for the evening's entertainment.


Please don't ask for an explanation of what is going on because I have no idea, but it seemed to be a hit with the crowd.

Not all performances were like that. Everyone took a turn on the stage. Most people chose to sing a song or do a traditional dance. And there was a lot of karaoke, although it was still all in Chinese.

Late into the evening, after hours of revelry and drunken karaoke, the crowd finally dispersed to their rooms with a reminder that breakfast would be at 8 a.m. followed by a hike through the mountains.

So, bright and early the next morning, we were out the door to hike through mountain trails in -13° Celsius (yes, that is a negative 13) weather while nursing fairly substantial hangovers. That is 8° in Fahrenheit. However, the views we encountered caused us to quickly forget about the poisons coursing through our bodies.

I don't know how sturdy it is, but I love rope bridges

We look forward to coming back here in the spring


It was bitterly cold outside, but it made for beautiful scenery



I would love to have these views every day.

We eventually climbed up to this spot


One of the battlements of the Great Wall.
These can be seen all over the peaks.

It's just such a peaceful looking place

I just really like this bridge

That is a portion of the Great Wall

We even encountered some of the local wildlife.


All of these activities and adventures centered around a teacher's meeting. The Chinese definitely do meetings better than Americans do. As much as we appreciated being a part of this incredible experience, there was really no reason for us to be there. We had no part in the meeting. We weren't even introduced, but we were glad to be there.

Maybe next year I'll even get up to sing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Delightfully Tacky

I have developed a bit of a bad habit lately. When I have a series of crappy days (and there have been several in the past few weeks), I start looking for a way to get out of my funk. This in itself is actually a good intention. It is not healthy to wallow in self-pity, anger, depression, angst, horniness, pizza boxes and Reese's wrappers. A person should seek out a solution and lately mine has been food. Sort of.

This is how I look at cheese now since I rarely see it in China

Most people are familiar with the term "comfort food" and know what it means. It is not a pork loin stuffed with Xanax. Although, that could technically qualify. It is the food that a person often consumes when they want to feel better about themselves or a situation. It may be because of a feeling of nostalgia for a simpler or happier time. It may be the food that just helps them forget the moment the person is in. It may be a simple matter of habit to gravitate to a particular type of food when someone is depressed. Or maybe, it is just the right food that triggers the pleasure centers of your brain causing you to reach for it any time you need a little pick me up. That could be due to an addiction to that food or it sparks the memory of the time that bleached blonde, tanned beauty who was spilling out of her rainbow-print tube top that was two sizes too small winked at me when I was stuffing that taco in my mouth. Who knows what a person's motivation may be.


My recent bad habit is in this realm, but has a little more to it. It's not as much about the food as it is about the escape. You see, Red and I moved to Beijing in September and the fascination with being in an exciting exotic location has worn off. China is just where we live now. We have grown accustomed to it. There is still a lot we do not understand about this foreign culture, but navigating these differences has become commonplace for us, but that does not mean it isn't sometimes stressful.

Some days, we just need to decompress and get away from everything that is different. We just want something familiar so our brains can stop working so hard. I often download movies and American TV shows which allows us an escape for a while, but you can only sit and watch television for so long. I feel the need to get out, but going out means that I will be surrounded by China and on the days I want to escape that just won't do.

I have recently found a solution.

This is where the food part comes in.

On days when I am feeling like I really need a pick-me-up, I start scouring the internet for American restaurants. In a past post, I wrote about going to McDonald's for this. That is nice for 20 minutes, but when I'm looking to get away for an entire evening, I need something more substantial and last week I stumbled upon this.

Not the bank. The HOOTERS!

We hopped a bus that night to go to a restaurant that we could spend a considerable longer time in and have food we were familiar with in a setting that is not foreign. We knew that once we got past the ordering part, we could take our time without the sensory overload of CHINA CHINA CHINA everywhere we look.

Red and I both appreciate the food of China, but it was nice to sit down to this and know exactly what we were getting.


This Hooters was just like the ones in the States except for their fried pickles (they just didn't taste quite right) and the main feature that Hooters' waitresses are best known for. Chinese women are typically of a smaller stature in the 'hooters' region.

On a side note, we learned (from the one waitress who spoke English) that Chinese men typically find small breasts to be more attractive anyway. We didn't ask for this information. She just volunteered it for some reason. While American standards lean toward women having curves, Chinese beauty standards favor the tiny framed, slender woman. She then gestured to another waitress, "Like her." The woman she pointed out was what some Americans would label as being of the "bean pole" variety.

Because of the difference in what the locals would consider beauty, this changes the Hooters uniform a bit. The girls still wear the short shorts, but the tight t-shirts are out. For one, China is significantly more conservative than the States. That type of uniform is just unacceptable. Second, without the assets to fill them out, the point is kind of lost anyway.


Our waitress (pictured above) had long sleeves and kept her zipper up to the neck. This practice was fine with us. We hadn't really gone to Hooters to look at boobies anyway. We were there to be someplace familiar where we could let our guard down and just enjoy a nice meal. Hooters provided that for us. It was a great night and we felt much better as we left.

However, two days later, I needed a China break again. That's when I found this...

Ignore the salad. That belongs to my crazy wife.
 A Memphis-style barbecue restaurant! 
I think we're going to be all right.