Monday, April 3, 2017

Qing Ming Jie - 清明节

My wife and I are enjoying a few well-earned days off from our jobs this week due to another one of the Chinese holidays we do not have in the States, Qing Ming Jie (清明节). In English, we would call this the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and it is just exactly what it sounds like. On this weekend, people travel back to their hometowns where their parents or grandparents are buried and sweep the dirt off the grave that has collected over the last year.

This is one of the holidays which kicks off springtime in China. It is celebrated on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese lunisolar calendar. OR…as westerners would say, it's the 15th day after the spring equinox. OR…as I would say, it's on April 4th or 5th each year. I don't know why it has to be so complicated.

Qing Ming Jie is similar to Memorial Day as it is a day to honor the dead, but that is about as far as the similarities go. In America, Memorial Day is celebrated like every other holiday that involves a three-day weekend. We get together to drink some beer and eat a bunch of grilled meat. At some point, someone may put some flowers on a grave somewhere. In China, there seems to be much more tradition involved.

And, as usual, since I spend most of my time with children, it is them that I turn to for my Chinese cultural education. And, since their English is very limited and my Chinese is virtually non-existent, sometimes they ask to draw me a picture instead of trying to explain something. I had no idea what this holiday even was, so two girls tried to draw it for me.

They are drawing pictures of graves.
After looking at the pictures and having a little back and forth with our combined limited language capabilities, I was able to determine that this was a day to commemorate the dead. Okay. Simple enough, but then I asked more questions.

On my way into the school that morning, I saw a street vendor selling something I had not seen before. With a holiday coming up, I figured there must be a connection. So I asked my students about the bundles of money I had seen for sale on the street corners.

It is fake, over-sized money in huge denominations.
They told me that the money is for burning. Burning. Not like we burn money in the States at Christmas by buying way more stuff than is needed, but actual burning. You buy this money and then you burn it. I had to ask why. A girl drew me this picture.

Money is burned for the dead to have a better after-life
Apparently, being dead is not much better than being alive if you don't have any money. I asked my students what a dead person would need money for and several of them shouted out "FOOD!"

I had never considered this. I know how much I love food and how much it really sucks to be hungry, but I didn't think that would be an issue after you kicked the bucket. Well, here it is. I have to do my best not to die in China.

As you can see from the video, we didn't get very far in the explanation department. I don't think any of us generally know what the other is talking about most of the time. However, I did see some of the burning of money happening that night.

And plenty of evidence of it the next day.

These burn spots were everywhere.
I'm not quite sure of the logistics of how this works or where you file your paperwork to be sure that the money you burn gets to the correct person in the afterlife and the children were of no help. They told me that the person you want the money to go to will get it. It just happens.

I continued to ask questions to try to understand this practice:

Can I burn money to go to more than one person?
Why don't the dead just get jobs so they have their own money?
Can I burn money for myself so it will be there waiting for me when I do die?
Is there crime in the afterlife?What if I burn money for my grandma, but another dead guy steals it?

Eventually, a boy raised his hand and said, "This is just Chinese tradition. It is not real. It is an ancient custom."

"Ah," I replied. "It's like Santa Claus. We leave out milk and cookies even though we know he isn't real. It's just tradition."

His jaw dropped open. "What?" was all he could say. Another kid wailed, "Santa's not real?" Half the class started crying.

I'll never understand China.

Friday, March 24, 2017

English Lessons

This week marks 6 months since Red and I arrived here in Beijing and most of the time we still feel like we have no idea what is going on around us, but we have a little bit of an idea more often than we used to.

Red has become a children's show host, sort of. She is the face being used for interactive English lessons. The children will have textbooks, worksheets and many books to be used with these lessons. Red is the star of the DVD portion of the program. She teaches the children and their parents English phrases and reads the books with them. She even has a little puppet sidekick. She's like Captain Kangaroo, minus the funny suit and sexual tension with all the guests

For myself, last month I signed a government contract to work in a school teaching English to third, fourth and fifth graders. As horrible as that may sound to many of you, please try to keep in mind that you are absolutely correct. Children are awful enough, but adding the element of not even being able to talk to them takes it to a while new level. Plus, my average class size is just under 40 students. I see each class once a week and with 20 classes, I see over 700 students a week. And this is just at my first job. I have two others.

I have been offered a professorship at a very prestigious technology university on the other side of the city, but I am in a contract until December. Until then, I am just thankful that these hundreds of kids don't actually know any martial arts.

Since my students have very limited English abilities, I cannot teach the same way I would teach another subject in the States. Ninety percent of anything I have to say will not be understood, so I have to use other methods. I discovered on my second day that waterboarding is not considered to be an acceptable method in Beijing schools, so I have had to research some alternatives.

Government school students start receiving English instruction in the first grade. Which means by the time I see them in the third grade, they have two years of English behind them. However, they are not ready to effectively communicate yet. They can say, "Hello" and respond to "How are you?" with "I am fine. Thank you. And you?" but that is just about it. They have about a hundred English words floating around in their little brains, but don't yet know how to piece them together to create independent sentences to express thought. This is why I am working on grammar and sentence structure.

Since I do not speak Chinese, I have to show by example. This past week, I was trying to get the kids to use sentences explaining what someone was doing. To keep their attention, I use fun little pictures on the screen.

For the above picture, I want the kids to say "He is reading" or, to really be impressive, say "He is reading a book." After looking at the screen, some of my students dig though the recesses of their brains and pull a few words. BOOK! I hear almost immediately from a few eager students.

"Yes. Book. But what is he doing?"

I get blank stares from the five kids who are actually paying attention and not cutting up erasers or throwing wet paper at each other. I pantomime reading and eventually a kid bites. READ! READ BOOK!

"Yes, but full sentence" and I start to write He on the board under the sentences I already have up there.

They are running.
He is drinking.
She is eating.
He is falling.
They are watching TV.

The eager one decides to try again. TEACHER! TEACHER! HE READ BOOK!

So, I underline the -ing in the previous sentences as I had done for each instance before. I slowly start to say "Heeee...iiiiissss..."

Proudly, one of the kids jumps to his feet. HE IS READ BOOK!

I point to the -ing again.


The rest of the class is being so loud I am fairly confident none of the students can hear me crying. I write He is reading on the board with the other sentences and pray that at least one kid will catch on to the pattern with the next one. I have the class repeat He is reading several times before showing the next picture.

As soon as this picture illuminates the screen, the class erupts with laughter and several kids cover their eyes. The many students who haven't been paying attention are being tapped by their friends to look at the screen. Every kid has a huge reaction and it is not the utterance of the sentence I want to hear. They are sleeping.  I find out later from a Chinese teacher that showing a picture of a man and woman in bed together to a bunch of grade school students is highly inappropriate.

OK. My bad, I guess. I'll never figure out China. Let's move onto the next picture and try to forget this one.

I was a little concerned with this one because I didn't know if they knew the word 'argue', but I knew they knew the word 'fight'. So, they could say "They are arguing" or "They are fighting". I would accept either one, but since no one had even come close to giving me a full sentence yet. It really wouldn't matter.

The picture got a few oohs and aahs while kids shook their fingers at each other and started mock fighting in Chinese, but no one attempted an English sentence. I did my best to quiet the class and asked, "What are they doing?"

A kid in the back of the class shouted in perfect English, "They are playing rock, paper, scissors!"

I'll take it.

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:
For paperback, click here:
Click here for Rodney's website:

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.