my new website

I’ve moved … again. From now on, I’ll be adding my future posts to my new website:

 http://runningintomyself-blog.com/

 

Of course, if you’re outside of China, this site will still be visible, and you can browse my archives going back to 2005. Eventually, however, everything will be switched to the new domain, and you’ll be redirected there automatically.

Advertisements

Ho ho ho, y’all

I’m in a vaguely Christmas-y mood, which is OK since it’s Christmas Eve. My Scrooge side must be in regression; maybe it’s the omnipresent holiday decorations in Chengdu, minus the consumer frenzy. It is also damned COLD outside, baby. I took Xiao Gou Gou for a walk and bought a couple of small boxes of milk (I guess the milk scare is over in China), then resolved to stay inside the rest of the night. The milk is for my Christmas morning café au lait. It won’t be an authentic French one, just strong Ethiopian coffee added to some steaming sweetened milk from the microwave. Right this moment I’m drinking some truly kick-ass, spicy, fresh ginger tea with chai masala powder added. The chai masala has been sitting in the kitchen since a departing teacher gave it to me a year and a half ago.

 

 

If you’ll permit me to reminisce for a moment, I’ll mention a couple of memorable Christmases from the past. Paris, 1979: my mother, brother, and I ate dinner at a restaurant called Roger a la Grenouille (Roger the Frog). Afterward, we were nearly trampled to death exiting Notre Dame at the end of the Christmas Eve service. The three of us had agreed not to give gifts, but mother surreptitiously purchased a record album for each of us at Galeries Lafayette. Mine was a recording of the opera Mireille, which we’d seen performed in Nice.

 

 

Chicago, 1980: in a blinding snowstorm on Howard Street, my brother Kenton and I shopped for a last-minute Christmas tree. There was no one in the tree lot to take our money; when I turned around, Kenton was already halfway down the street with the tree, so technically we stole it (we really DID try to pay). We wrestled the tree onto a public bus, to the annoyance of other passengers. Back at the apartment, we decorated Sally (a store mannequin propped in a corner of the dining room) with tinsel and lights.

 

  

 

 

2 1/2 minutes of fame


I gave final oral exams this morning, so half of my classes are now finished for the semester; I’ll complete the remaining exams next Monday and Tuesday. The process is simple, and FAST:

Each student chooses a partner; I give each set of partners a number and a scoring sheet to fill out.

As I call each number, I hand the students a small piece of paper with a topic to talk about, and put them in the hall for 3 minutes to prepare.

While one pair of students is preparing, another pair is having their exam.

When your 2 1/2 minutes of talking are up, the alarm on my cell phone rings.

DING-ding, DING-ding, DING-ding!

Thank you. NEXT!

The students appreciate the simplicity of the process, and before they leave, I give them their oral exam score.

I finished early today, so instead of waiting around for the school bus, I hiked to the main road and caught the public bus. The trip takes 90 minutes and involves one transfer, but it’s not the worst commute I’ve ever had. That would be the late-night Chicago subway rides, after getting off work and waiting for 30 minutes at 1:00 AM in sub-zero temperatures on the station platform, hoping I didn’t get mugged or worse, then having to transfer to the Evanston train, and finally walking a long mile home. Brrrrrrrrrrrr.

Depending on my levels of both hunger and laziness, dinner tonight will be either chicken curry or smoked tofu with scrambled eggs. I’ll let you know later.

Food porn


What’s a holiday without food? Or at least tantalizing pictures of holiday sweets? A couple of my fave food blogs are David Lebovitz and Orangette.

 

Really weird

 Fountain, new campus, UESTC

 

I’m having a rather unique experience: four entire days off in a row. I say “having” rather than “enjoying,” because I’m really sick. The cold weather in Chengdu brings with it new smog levels, as coal dust is added to the toxic soup that simmers slowly under the winter skies. It’s 5:00 PM, and I just woke up from my daily nap feeling, well, really weird. I slept with the heater on, blowing warm, dry air from above the bed, and I woke up with a scratchy, dry throat, burning eyes, and a horrible thirst. However, all is not lost, because my naps accomplish two things: 1) I get to spend 2 or 3 hours being blissfully unaware of my allergies and exploding head; and 2) I get to have a cup of strong, black coffee upon waking.

Now the truth comes out: I’m a coffee addict. Usually I can’t drink it after about 12 noon, though, because of the danger of sleeplessness at night. Being sick, however, I can safely consume vast quantities of the stuff, with a hardly noticeable effect on my spaced-out, drowsy brain. It’s a miracle of sorts, a silver lining to my cloud.

My classes in Xindu were canceled today, as four of the students are taking the CET-4 (College English Test, Level 4). It left me free to accomplish such undemanding tasks as eating lots of toast with butter, making a batch of dog food, and scrubbing the counter-top stove until it gleamed.

Life is just a blur
 
 
So what does one DO with the unusual luxury of four days? On Thursday I spent the afternoon at the Song Xian Qiao antiques market. I was ostensibly looking for a couple of hanging scroll paintings to adorn the apartment, but spent the time just aimlessly browsing. One has to be extremely careful about showing an interest in anything, since some of the sellers can be quite aggressive and predatory. I happened to glance – momentarily – at a hanging rectangle of carved wood with various Buddha figures worked into the design; within seconds one woman had taken the carving down for my inspection, while her companion grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and wrote an asking price of 280 yuan. She then shoved the paper and pen at me, ordering me to make a counter-offer. I signaled “no,” to indicate “just looking,” but to no avail; she insisted. When I didn’t respond soon enough she wrote “230” and shoved the paper in my face again. I tried to demur gracefully, and started to retreat. The woman followed me halfway across the market, grabbing at my arm and demanding a negotiation.

The truth is that I LOVED the wood carving, but I wasn’t about to be bullied into a rash decision. I had also decided that I would not, under any circumstances, make an impulsive purchase. In addition, 230 yuan seemed a little cheap, and I hesitated to buy anything “antique” without doing a little research first, or bringing someone with me who knew what they were looking at. I spent the rest of the day being blissfully un-attacked.

A shadow of my former self
 
 
Friday, I went to pick up my salary from one of my teaching jobs, then made a trip to the bank. I did a lot of walking, which more than justified my daily nap. I stopped at Carrefour on Babao Jie to pick up some groceries, where I succeeded in getting my backpack stuck in one of the automated self-service lockers. One of the straps was sticking partway out when I closed the door, jamming it shut. I panicked, but realized this was a good chance to practice my Chinese. I conducted myself admirably, saying 帮我 bāng wǒ [help me!] and 我不会开门 wǒ bù huì kāi mén [I can’t open the door]. I think I said them correctly. An amused customer service woman deftly liberated my backpack.
I also made some gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken in American English), which turned out halfway good. It’s taken me a long time to learn the secret: mix the diced chicken with a little water and corn starch or potato flour first, then put it aside for 30 minutes or so; the absorbed liquid and the coating will keep the chicken moist as it cooks in the pan over high heat. Duh.

Today I had a major victory: I succeeded in making a long-distance call to Citibank in the U.S., from the China Mobile office just up the street. It was deceptively simple, after so many previous failed attempts. No only did I obtain my bank balance (higher than I had thought), but I succeeded in getting them to mail my new bank card to my address in China. Another victory: I’ve now managed to save enough to pay off all my remaining credit card debt in one payment. This has enormous implications: it will not only make me debt-free (except for one student loan) for the first time in 30 years, but I will no longer have the burden of having to set aside half of my monthly Chinese salary for my debt repayment program. As a bonus, I may be able to buy my new digital camera in January or February. Woo-hoo!

 

Bounty

This past week was bountiful in many ways. There were small things, such as the new Moka Express coffee maker, the hot chocolate experience, and the grilled peanut butter sandwich. Then, this evening there was the homemade split pea soup, simmered for hours on low heat in the rice cooker. On top of these things, though, I’ve been unusually happy. I’m not just saying that because I increased my antidepressant medication, although I’m sure that helped.

I’ve also spent most of the past two or three days on a blissful caffeine high. The Mexico Altura coffee was good, but the Ethiopia Yirgachaffe today sent me rocketing skyward. It’s strange, because after I brought it home last night after a frustrating day of teaching, opened it, and brewed some, it sucked. Royally. I don’t use the word suck lightly, but this stuff was bitter, sharp, loaded with caffeine, and acidic enough to give me stomach pains. Something changed overnight, for when I brewed it today (twice – morning and afternoon) and adjusted the ratio of water to coffee, it was divine. It was heady, aromatic, deep, rich, and left me feeling really, well, caffeinated. Go figure. These were coffees that weren’t exactly fresh; from what I could decipher from the date stamps, they were packaged sometime in August. I can only imagine what I’ll be like with truly exceptional coffee.

Birthday dinner

A birthday dinner with my friend on Thursday evening was both enjoyable and delicious. We ate at Cacaja, an Indian restaurant facing the river, between two luxury hotels in central Chengdu. It was a busy, festive place, and we ate chicken and vegetable curries, vegetable pakora, vegetable naan, and mushroom fried rice. Earlier in the day we’d watched Bridget Jones’s Diary, and after dinner it was freezing cold, so we both hurried to go our separate ways on separate buses.

My newest mania has been educating myself about espresso. It’s been an eye-opening experience, and I made an eye-opening trip to a couple of great coffee-ware stores. Forget the expensive downtown shops and coffee boutiques, and head to the east side of Chengdu, past the 2nd Ring Road, to what I’ll call the restaurant supply and housewares district. In Chengdu, different products are sold in specific districts of the city: there’s the cell phone street, the light fixture district, the computer and camera district, the bicycle street, etc. Arranged in a depot-like design, with rows of stores facing each other across long, narrow cross-streets, the restaurant and housewares market can outfit your new restaurant, sell you a serving platter shaped like a Chinese bridge or a sailing ship, or indulge your coffee and tea-making fantasies. I ended up buying a cheap wooden tea/coffee tray, and some white ceramic, restaurant-style coffee and espresso cups and saucers. I passed on the coffee beans, since I don’t yet own a coffee grinder, but someday….

 Venting

I had a moment of culture shock this week, while teaching a small class. I say “culture shock” because I can find no other way to think of the students’ behavior. In an email discussion list to which I subscribe, one teacher described disruptive or rude student behavior as a signal to him that his lesson was boring. Another teacher countered that we shouldn’t see everything that happens in class as a reflection of our teaching ability; some behaviors are simply personality traits or, through long and uncorrected practice, have become ingrained, and thus “acceptable.” Here is my laundry list:

coming to class late
eating food while I’m asking students to speak
leaving class to answer mobile phone calls
talking in Chinese when teacher is talking
disappearing during break
listening to MP4
doing other teacher’s homework
reading other books
loud yawning

Most of these things happened during one recent class. I got tired of saying “no eating,” “quiet please,” and “Who plugged their cell phone into the computer power strip and made the sound on my video clip stop working?” It was appalling. For the first time ever, I had to take a short “bathroom break” (cooling off period) from class.

Part of learning to be a teacher is learning how to demand what I – as opposed to my students – need in class: respect, quiet, attentiveness, participation, honest feedback, and civilized behavior. Anything less is unacceptable, so why do I still accept it? Maybe it sometimes seems like too much of an uphill battle.

The write stuff

Now that I’ve vented, I want to talk about writing for a moment. I’ve been stressing the importance of a good topic sentence, as a general introduction and a “teaser” to arouse the reader. A really, really good topic sentence can be damned difficult, and I’ve seen students struggle bravely to achieve one. Here, then, are what I consider some very individualistic, and unforgettable, topic sentences from some of my past students:

I think here are a lot of broken hearts in Casablanca and I know I have never been to Casablanca.

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was an old and silent movie.

If you choose to go outdoors I think it is necessary for you to buy a sleeping bag.

Since long, action-adventure is always an activity full of dispute.

There are many things for me to say about learning english.

I get older, eat bad food, then redeem myself

Earlier days: my brother Kenton looks much more interested in Santa than I was (I’m on the right)
 

Blue Birthday

Today was my birthday. I was an occasion that my mother didn’t quite live to see: the completion of her own 53rd year. It was a bittersweet day.

I taught the usual two morning classes, preparing my students for their oral exams starting next week, and sitting through an incredibly long student presentation. I let it continue because it was fairly interesting, and it absolved me from any responsibility for filling up the 90-minute time slot.

Pad Thai, Bad Thai

I caught the 49 bus downtown, my first stop a small shop called Coffee Life. As you’d expect, it’s about coffee makers, grinders, cups, and coffee. I don’t buy my coffee here, though, since their inventory sits on the shelf a long time, and is way past fresh.

Isetan, Hongxing Lu, downtown Chengdu (Flickr)

 

I then took myself out for birthday lunch, to the Parkway Thai Restaurant in the Isetan department store. Bad choice: it was the worst Thai food I’ve ever eaten. My judgment was faulty, my thinking clouded by hunger and allergies. It was airplane food, tasteless, bland, and served in a garish corporate chain atmosphere. I ordered Pad Thai, a basic measuring stick by which you can judge the quality of a Thai restaurant, and spring rolls. The Pad Thai was an abomination: it lacked any contrast of textures, the soft rice noodles balanced against crunchy bean sprouts and peanuts. Come to think of it, I didn’t SEE any peanuts. The chicken pieces were microscopic, there was no seasoning, there were unexplained slivers of hard tofu, and the food just sat in a lump on the plate. The spring rolls were something you could find in the freezer section of the grocery store, only not as good. Thankfully, the tab for this mediocrity wasn’t overly expensive.

I needed to compensate: I was partly consoled by a visit to my favorite department at Isetan: the Calvin Klein bed linen display. These are the sheets and covers of my dream bedroom, and at 7,000 yuan (about $1,000) for a complete set, that’s where they’ll stay. On the fifth floor, I perused sets of espresso cups, coffee grinders, and fine china. Then I headed for the basement grocery store, to look at the coffee selection. They carry a good Chinese brand of coffees, but this time I was looking for Lavazza, the real Italian thing. No luck. I settled on a liter of Spanish olive oil as my birthday gift.

To get the taste and memory of the Thai food out of my mouth, I consumed three Ferrero Rocher chocolates, plus a single espresso at Starbucks. Thus fortified, I bravely continued my shopping excursion, before returning home to rest.

Chocolate heaven

My day was redeemed very simply. After a nap, I made a light dinner out of a slice of pan-fried toast topped with tomato and scrambled egg. I was saving myself for something special, a long-anticipated experiment in creating the perfect, thick hot chocolate drink. Many years ago, in Chicago, I made what I considered the perfect hot drink – a dark bar of German chocolate melted slowly in a pan of warm milk and cream, with a little cinnamon and vanilla extract added at the last moment. It was perfect for a freezing Chicago night, after a mile walk from the el station in deep snow and gale-force winds. Now I wanted something more, a kind of distillation of nothing but dark chocolate and water.

 

You start with Valor Dark Chocolate (Flickr)

 

On a friend’s recommendation, I purchased some Valor dark chocolate, 70% cocoa, made in Spain, available locally at Watson’s drug stores. Proceeding by sheer instinct, I broke half the bar (50 g) into a small coffee cup, and poured about the same quantity of boiling water over the chocolate pieces. I popped the cup into the microwave for about 30 seconds to melt the chocolate. You have to be very careful not to let the liquid boil, or to overheat or burn the chocolate. I then stirred the mixture with a small spoon; it got thicker and thicker the more I stirred, coating the spoon, which, of course, I licked clean.

Just anticipating sipping from the small cup of black-brown nectar, with its mist of steam swirling gently heavenward, sent me into a frenzy of lustful craving. It was also a moment to be enjoyed alone – I roughly pushed the dog aside so I could concentrate all my faculties on the task at hand.

 

Not mine, but close: dark, thick, rich (Flickr)

 

It was the espresso of chocolate drinks – the liquid essence of chocolate, minus the crema (the foamy surface layer of emulsified coffee oils floating on espresso). It was a candy bar in a cup, a kid’s fantasy of oozing, liquefied chocolate that would coat your mouth, face, and hands; it was a miniature swimming pool in which my inner child could take a plunge and satisfy every craving that I had long suppressed. It was a chocolate orgy, an unctuous molten lava of sensuality. It was over too soon, and left me scraping every last remnant of gooey chocolate sludge off the bottom of the cup with a spoon.

The experience was better than sex, unless maybe it’s chocolate sex. Basking in the afterglow, I forgot my allergies, persistent cough, and the depression of turning 53. It restored my confidence in myself to concoct something exquisite.

A variation on this theme (and my inspiration for the chocolate-water mixture) is this pure chocolate mousse on the blog Kitchen Exhibitionist:
http://kitchenexhibitionist.blogspot.com/2006/11/breaking-chocolate-rules-pure.html

The next dish I will try is something the Kitchen Exhibitionist calls Pizza Eggs, which sounds too good to pass up:
http://kitchenexhibitionist.blogspot.com/2006/11/shirred-eggs-supreme-pizza-eggs.html

You did what with peanut butter?

I’m going to tell you a secret: grilled peanut butter sandwich. On the teachers’ bus the other day, coming home from class, a colleague and I talked about lunch, then I mentioned peanut butter, then he mentioned grilling the sandwich in butter. It sounded quite decadent. When I got home, I took two slices of whole wheat bread, spread one of them with a thick layer of generic peanut butter from Carrefour, and the other with honey. I put them together, then melted some butter in a pan. After frying the sandwich on both sides until it was toasty and golden, I ate the delicious, sloppy mess. I won’t say it was as good as the hot chocolate, but it was pretty darn satisfying. Did I mention all the trans fats, cholesterol, and sugar? Ah, the good things in life.

Me and Elvis, among others

‘Tis the season….Elvis tree ornament (from Flickr)

 
 
 Teaching The King

There’s been a question in the back of my mind for a long time: is the plural of “Elvis” Elvises or Elvi? If you said you went to Vegas to see fifty flying Elvises would that be correct? Just asking.

Don’t ask me why, but I taught an Elvis segment in my class today. Maybe it’s the season, or the cold weather, or maybe I was feeling especially jolly, but for the first time in my entire adult life I sang in front of a class. With a microphone. Love Me Tender. OK, I sang along with Elvis, but still, I sang. Then I taught the song to the class and tried to make them stand up and sing it in partners. What prompted this? I don’t even like Elvis. I will blame it on the strain of trying to teach dependent clauses and transitional phrases. Or maybe it’s the fault of the delicious coffee from my new stovetop coffee maker.

Love me tender,
Love me sweet,
Never let me go.
You have made my life complete,
And I love you so.

 

Oh, it’s coming back to me now. It was the writing lesson I found online, with the life of Elvis as the subject. I printed a bunch of Elvis sentences, cut them apart, scrambled them, then handed them to pairs of students to make sense out of. They were instructed to put the sentences into categories – reasons for his fame, early life, musical style, death – and then write a couple of paragraphs using all the sentences. They could combine them, use transitional phrases, or whatever. We ended up with some good Elvis stories. On top of it all, I got to teach the word “erotic” (Elvis danced erotically). I tried to swivel my hips as a demonstration, but my booty-shakin’ days are long gone, and I just jiggled some fat. I ended up telling the students it’s a synonym for “sexy.”

Thangyouvurrymuch.

My Saturday classes, at the International Performance College in Xindu, run from 9 to 12:15, then from 1:45 to 3:15. As usual, the highlight of the teaching day was lunch. The class and I ate chuan cai (Sichuan cuisine): gong bao chicken, salt-fried pork, shredded potatoes, beef and carrots in red sauce, and mapo doufu (spicy tofu).

In the afternoon I had “interviews” with the students, holding the microphone up to them so every word was heard. If a student used too much Chinese translation, I had them repeat the entire conversation with me in English once they figured out the right words. Then each student (only 5 of them today) had to teach the class how to do something. As a demonstration, I taught how to do the “tree” posture in yoga, losing my balance. We also learned how to do a traditional Chinese dance, how to draw a rabbit, how to walk like a gorilla, how to sing The Carpenters’ Yesterday Once More, and how to draw an apple using correct light and shadow.

Afterward, when my teaching assistant and I were dropped off back in central Chengdu by the school bus, I went to Carrefour to buy some bread and butter (I get cravings, OK?), and also picked out a pretty set of 5 coffee cups and saucers, each a different pattern, as an early birthday gift to myself. The shopping crowds and traffic downtown were insane. I kept my cool, and almost started to enjoy the Christmas muzak in the store. Go figure.

All in all, it was a rewarding day.

 

My favorite photo today
In the absence of my own digital camera, I often rely on Flickr to illustrate my blog. This photo’s so good that you can feel the cold and the snow on the Paris street. Also, it reflects my nostalgia for Paris, and my plans (tentative) to return there in 2010.

Happy

Coffee, anyone?

 For a short moment today, I was happy. OK, maybe for two moments. I received my Bialetti Moka Express stove-top coffee maker today. Many years ago I had one that my mother gave me, and I loved it, but it was eventually abandoned in an apartment in Evanston, Illinois.

Funny how the global economy works: I bought an Italian coffee maker on eBay (U.S.) from a seller in Israel, who shipped it to an American teacher living in China. I’m now enjoying some Mexico Altura coffee produced by a Chinese company and sold in a Japanese department store in Chengdu. If it all sounds too complicated, it began with the low price and free international shipping for the Moka Express. The cost was about half what the same product sells for in most of the Chengdu stores where I’ve seen it.

When I rode my bike downtown today to buy coffee, I also stopped in at Bread Talk, a halfway-good bakery chain, for some cheese cake. Well, I wasn’t expecting an authentic New York deli version, but still it was more bland than any slice of cake has a right to be. Then I did some (imaginary) shopping at a couple of expensive stores, and ended up at the bookstore, where I bought Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to read while I sip coffee from my new machine.

Whose bank is it anyway?
 

I’m having international banking problems. Up to a few months ago, my Citibank online account worked just fine, and I’ve had no problem making international money transfers. Then, when my old debit card expired, I lost access to my online banking. The mailing address I use is in Arizona, so I never received my new card, and repeated attempts to call Citibank’s international number (using a China Mobile pay phone center) have been unsuccessful. A letter sent 6 weeks ago got no response. I now have no control over my automatic monthly payments, can’t check my balance, and flew into a frenzy of financial jitters. All will be resolved eventually, but I still feel a lot better about my money when I can check on it once in a while to make sure it’s safe.

Lipo-what?
 
OK students, our new word for today is lipogrammatic, which I discovered by way of this photo (not mine) on Flickr, which shows French writer Georges Perec’s novel La disparition
I’ve heard of liposuction, but not lipograms. According to Wikipedia (thankfully no longer blocked in China):
A lipogram (from Greek lipagrammatos, “missing letter”) is a kind of constrained writing or word game consisting of writing paragraphs or longer works in which a particular letter or group of letters is missing, usually a common vowel, the most common in English being e. A lipogram author avoiding e then only uses the 25 remaining letters of the alphabet.

Perec wrote his entire lipogrammatic novel without using the letter e. The e‘s were even left out in the English translation . 

The end of the semester is upon us. I gave my students fair warning this week of the final oral evaluations, which will start in two weeks. Their task will be to have a conversation in pairs on an assigned topic, with only 3 minutes to prepare. I also did one of my favorite classroom activities, “3-minute partner conversations,” which is always popular (or at least fills the room with the sounds of spoken English). Students talk to a partner for 3 minutes about a given topic, then stop and switch partners. Depending on the time available, each student will have talked to 6-10 different people by the end of the activity. During the final conversation, each student must summarize what they talked about with all their previous partners. 

That’s all, folks.