Saturday, June 24, 2017

Cave Dwellers

When I was a kid, our family vacations often consisted of going camping at Rend Lake in Southern Illinois. Rend Lake is the lake that was a few miles from our house, but to make it feel like we were on a major journey, our parents would always take us to camp on the other side.

Now, we did have some fun times, but I would yearn for the times when we would go further than the next county over. And get to sleep in an actual bed. And didn't have to catch our food if we wanted to eat. And use a real shower.

I don't blame my parents. A trip to the lake was a low-cost vacation and we didn't have a lot of money. Plus, the main purpose for a vacation is to get away from the stress of work. My dad worked hard in a coal mine and just wanted to get away now and then. Planning a big trip often just causes more stress and my father was of the belief that encouraging man's careless eagerness to live indoors just exaggerated that stress.

Despite the desire to stay close to home and eat burnt potatoes dug out of a campfire, sometimes we had to venture further out because my mother's family lived on the other side of Missouri. On one of our trips to visit them, we made an unscheduled stop to visit Onondaga Cave. I don't know how our parents felt about it, but that cave blew my brothers and I away. It was awesome. From that day on, anytime we were in the St. Louis area, we would beg to go back and see the cave.

On one of these trips, as we saw the interstate sign advertising that the cave was 87 MILES AHEAD, we started our usual pleading and my mother pointed out that there other caves beside that one. Now, that may have been true, but we had not seen those other caves and as stupid children (you may have noticed this about your own children), we wanted to see the one we knew we loved.

Despite how adorable we were, my mother denied our request and forced us to go to Meramac Caverns instead. Once we stopped crying about how horrible our mother was being to us, we looked around and noticed that this cave was even better than Onondaga. It was amazing. From then on, we became cave people.
Wait. Not "cave people" like we quit school and started living naked in the caverns while eating the few bats we could knock off the ceiling and using their guano to protect our skin from the sun when we stepped outside, but "cave people" like people who really enjoy caves.
Every time we were on a road trip, we kept our eyes open for cave systems and since Missouri has over 6,000 chartered caves, there were plenty to find. Our vacations started to center around cavern systems instead of the local lake. One of our vacations even took us to Arkansas because of a large system of caverns we were eager to explore.

On one of these trips, Dad heard about a cave we could explore ourselves and we drove out in the middle of BFE to find it. We went down miles of dirt roads and eventually parked in a field and started walking. It was a long walk, but we eventually found the mouth of the cave and ventured in. I was in junior high and my brothers are 3 and 5 years younger than me. This means that we are significantly younger and more nimble than our parents and were able to move through the cave more quickly and easily.  As the ceiling of the cave got lower and lower, my brothers and I pulled further ahead.

Before long, it required crawling on our hands and knees to progress further. Our parents checked our lights and told us we could go a few yards up to see if it opened up on the other side. If it did, they would follow us through. We edged forward as the ceiling lowered and lowered and soon had to pull ourselves along on our bellies. We yelled back that we were fine every time we heard our parents voices calling for us and continued forward.

As the ceiling started scraping our backs when we moved forward, we decided to move over into the small stream that was flowing beside us. The water was freezing, but the erosion of flowing water gave a few more inches of space to work with. Unfortunately, the ceiling was still getting lower as we progressed. We eventually had to flip over onto our backs and just keep our faces above the water as we pulled ourselves through. Imagine lying on your back in about a foot of water unable raise your head out of the water because there is a slab of stone about two inches above the surface. This is what we were pulling ourselves through. Of course, now that our ears were underwater, we could no longer hear the cries of our parents screaming for us to answer them.

We slowly pushed forward with no regard as to how we would back out of this if the ceiling got so low we couldn't breathe or what our plan would be if the water started to rise. Remember my earlier statement about children being stupid? We inched along and began to notice that we had a little more space than before. We were soon able to flip back over to our stomachs and move much faster. And then, we found the opening. It opened up into a HUGE room. Stalactites, stalagmites and limestone columns were everywhere. It was beautiful.

As much as we wanted to see everything, we could see that there were several paths out of that room and did not want to get lost, so we needed to head back to let our parents know that there was a room back here and they could come on through. We went back into the hole we just came out of.

Using the same method of lying on our backs to breathe, we inched our way back to our parents and surprisingly found them much sooner than we expected. When they were no longer able to hear us, they had done their best to follow us and prayed we didn't all get lost in there forever. They stopped in one of the little rooms we had found not knowing where we had gone after that. They didn't realize there was a path deeper in if you were willing to submerge yourself in water and pull yourself through on your back. Who was being stupid now?

I think that was the first time I ever got grounded on a subterranean level.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Six Weeks and Counting

Red and I have been in China for nine months now and we have one of those "first-time since arriving" milestones coming up. We are going back home to visit.

Now, we have not even been here a year yet, but since our jobs are in the education field we have chosen to take advantage of the summer school vacation to come back to the States to clean out our storage unit and tie up a few loose ends we weren't sure what to do about before we left.

We have a list of tasks we need to do, but there are several things I have been fantasizing about ever since we booked the plane tickets.

No, China, no!
Bad China!
Learn what a hamburger is.
The meals we each want. As much as we love the food of Beijing (and we do love it), the food here leaves much to be desired when they attempt to create a food from other places (for example, any place outside of China). It took us almost four months to find a decent pizza here, over six months to find a hamburger I could choke down, and we still haven't found anything that remotely resembles Mexican food. Eggs are always radically overcooked and I think they boil their bacon. I've had Mountain Dew exactly twice in nine months and I had to pay a fortune to have it shipped to me from Thailand. And lastly, I miss American-style Chinese food. I plan to visit the #6 China Buffet in my hometown. That may sound crazy, but you can't get any of that stuff here in China.

Walking down the street knowing what's happening. Right now, we can't read the street signs, we don't understand the conversations around us, we can't appropriately respond to store clerks or waiters questions, and we're basically guessing about everything all the time. We have gotten pretty good at shutting the world out to prevent mental exhaustion. Although, we do have some concern that when we get back into an English-speaking country, the sudden influx of understandable dialogue and readable street signs may be information overload.

Having people laugh at my jokes. As a person who communicates almost exclusively in sarcasm, back-handed insults and witty banter, it is sheer torture to be surrounded by people who don't understand my sense of humor. It's not just a language thing. The Chinese find totally different things to be funny. Just yesterday, I was explaining to a Chinese girl that I prefer to watch movies at home and don't really enjoy the movie theater experience because they won't pause the movie for me to run to the fridge and I always get thrown out when I take my pants off. She paused for a moment, looked at me scornfully and said, "No. You can't take your pants off" and then proceeded to tell me how nice the Beijing theaters were. A few months ago, I asked my boss (I teach English) how many kids I could choke each week before I would get in trouble. She just said, "We don't do that here" and continued explaining my pay schedule. I NEED people to laugh at me.

Let's go back to food for a moment. I want a steak. A big, fat, juicy steak. I've been out for steak a couple of times here and (once again) I don't know what they do to meat here, but I was depressed for a week afterward. I have to get a good steak while I'm in the States.

Step outside without people staring at us. We live in a very international city, but in a strictly Chinese neighborhood. There are exactly ZERO non-Chinese people living in our neighborhood. It is not uncommon for children to point at us or for us to hear the words 老外 lǎowài (foreigner) or 美国人 iguórén (American) from people who don't realize that those are two of the seven words we actually know. We are such a novelty, people even approach us to have their picture taken with us. I know I'm ready to just blend into a crowd and not be noticed.

"That man is so tall. How does he not fall over?"

Have a conversation with someone that is not my wife. I love my wife. Very much. She is my favorite person in the world. However, sometimes…just sometimes, I want to talk to someone who is not her. I talk to a lot of people, but due to language and cultural issues the conversation is generally quite shallow. I'm looking forward to sitting in a group conversation involving complete understanding from all participants.

We really need to learn Chinese.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Am Who I Am

Since moving to Beijing, I have been continually amazed at how much of my previous knowledge about China and Chinese people is totally wrong.
  • Rice is not nearly as prevalent as I thought.
  • Sweet and Sour Chicken? Wontons? Orange Chicken? Beef and Broccoli? Egg Flower Soup? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's anthing? You will never find any of these foods.
  • Although it is a highly respected ancient skill, almost no one knows kung fu. Which means no kung fu battles on the streets.
  • Their children are not math geniuses.
  • There is an alarming lack of ninjas.
  • I have yet to come across a panda digging through a trash can.
These misconceptions work both ways. I was reminded of this when I read an article about the Chinese belief that all foreigners hate cilantro (click here to read it). Where do these ideas come from? I don't know, but I have had many encounters with people here who are surprised that I am not what they consider to be a "typical American".

My wife and I both enjoy spicy food. Now, I know that not all Americans can handle spicy dishes, but I know many people who love to test their intestinal endurance. Any time a dish is being prepared in front of us, when the cook gets to the spicy ingredient s/he pauses. "Oh, crap. This is for an American. They can't handle this stuff, but I can't just leave it out. That might be insulting and Americans like to shoot people." The cook then holds up the spoonful of red powder and gives us a look that clearly communicates, "Are you going to want this stuff." We always smile and nod 对 (duì, duì - yes;that's right) while we point to the dish. It becomes immediately obvious that they are surprised by that answer or concerned that we may not be sure what we just agreed to.

I don't care about sports. When a local here learns that I am from Illinois, they don't know what that means. But if I tell them it is where Chicago is, they want to talk about the Bulls. This is something I cannot do. All I know about the Bulls is that Michael Jordan played for them until he quit to make a movie with Bugs Bunny and sell underwear. Every kid wants to know what my favorite sport is and what teams I follow. Due to the language barrier, it takes great effort to get them to understand I don't care about any of it. They always seem genuinely confused. This happened in the States too, but at least I could explain that I think grown men chasing a ball is not quality entertainment.

I am not a big drinker of alcohol. I get the impression that Americans are viewed as being big partiers and I know there is a Chinese belief that Americans can hold their liquor better than the Chinese. Because of this belief, in social situations (even when work-related) they want to see this demonstrated. The liquor flows freely and there is always someone to keep refilling your glass or bring you a new drink whether you want it or not. I am not opposed to having a beer or two, but that's it. When I say I'm done, it always causes confusion and I am sure that I am breaking a few social rules. Although, on that one I am a typical American. I have no problem breaking social rules. Been practicing for years.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Power Game

On October 18th, I wrote about the adventure of paying my power bill in China. You can read that post here. Without getting into how difficult it was to pay, here is a recap of the money portion of it.

The picture above was taken on October 18, 2016. Those numbers are the amount of money that I had on the meter. In US dollars that is close to $75. Many people asked me how long I expected $75 to last, but I had no way of knowing at the time. My guess was that we were good to go for about a month.

I checked that meter every week for the next month because I didn't want it to run out and have our power shut off, but I soon quit checking because it moved slower than a stoned sloth on Ambien. I didn't look at it again until the beginning of May when we started using our air conditioner because the temperature hit nearly 100.

Once the air was on, it started moving (although slowly) and it got down to 125¥ about two weeks ago. That means it took seven months for us to use just under 400¥. For those of you playing at home, that is less than $60 for seven months of electricity usage. That averages out to less than $10 per month. It was under $4 when we weren't using the air conditioner.

I can't help but wonder why I always paid at least $300 every month for the same service when I lived in the States. I have a theory, but it's rather controversial and involves Kathy Griffin devouring the gall bladders of lab-grown goat embryos provided by the Illuminati to finance a third Paul Blart movie. I try not to get political here, so I won't get into details.

In the meantime, as the city outside is melting, I have no reservations about cranking the A/C up high enough to have icicles forming on our shower curtain rod since the monthly expense is less than a couple of Big Macs.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Relaxing Week

Living and working in China definitely comes with its share of challenges, but it has some great advantages as well. Today, I am enjoying one of those perks. I didn't have to go to work.

About a month after arriving in China, we experienced some horribly unpleasant weeks when we were pulled out of our jobs until our work visas were completed. This left us without work and without money. This experience led me to demand guaranteed pay in my next job. The school can make any decision it wants about how often my classes are cancelled, but my contract states that it cannot affect my pay. This clause has protected me several times.

Right now is one of those times. This past weekend was Memorial Day in America. Coincidentally, we also had a three-day weekend in China. However, here, it is the Dragon Boat Festival (忠孝節). We had to have school on Saturday because the holiday stretched from Sunday to Tuesday. Since we would be missing two days of school, they added an extra day at the end of last week to get one of those days back.

I reported back to work on Wednesday and was told that I would not need to come to work the following day because June 1st is Children's Day. School would be in session, but it would be a day of parties and there would be no need for English class. I also never work on Fridays, so I had a one-day work week. Lucky me.

Don't let their appearance fool you. All children are horrible.

Children's Day is a major holiday for children here. The kids in my class say that it is better than Christmas. The whole day is dedicated to them. In fact, the majority of my classes for the last month got cancelled because the children were preparing songs and skits for the Children's Day celebration. I have worked so little in the past month, this is why I am happy to have that guaranteed paycheck agreement. Time off is nice, but bills still have to be paid.

With all this time off, I have tackled many of the issues that have needed to be attended to. I have figured out food delivery, how to order stuff online, where to buy clothes in my size (Chinese people are significantly smaller than me), and how to repel panda attacks. I'm starting to figure out how China works.

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 whole 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.

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.