Gee, thanks

It’s that time again

See, I always have my most brilliant teaching ideas after I’ve taught the class. Take my Thanksgiving lessons. Please.

I was riding my bike home tonight from my business English class, and my head was full of teaching thoughts. I suddenly thought about the T-Day segment I taught this morning, and did a mental head slap – kinda like Homer Simpson’s “Doh!” – when it occurred to me what I hadn’t taught. Most people know about “Turkey Day.” How many English learners, though, know these expressions that I could have taught, if I’d been thinking:

Cold turkey – no, it doesn’t mean leftovers the day after Thanksgiving. It means giving up an addictive substance suddenly, as I did with both alcohol and cigarettes.

Talk turkey – to discuss a problem in a serious way with a real intention to solve it

It’s a real turkey – a failure; as in a really bad play or musical:
…Even with a turkey that you know will fold

You may be stranded out in the cold

– Irving Berlin, There’s No Business Like Show Business, from Annie Get Your Gun

Since one of the VOA Daily Download news broadcasts was about Thanksgiving, I thought, well, why not? In my Saturday and Monday classes I showed a short news digest, spoken at really fast speed (the best of my students understood about 60% of it), followed by a cloze (fill-in-the-blanks) exercise to practice vocabulary. I talked about the obligatory Pilgrims, the Wampoanog Tribe of native Americans, Puritans, and Plymouth, Massacusetts. The students seemed to enjoy it, especially the “gobble gobble” sounds of turkeys, which I even tried to imitate in one class.

I’m not usually a holiday type person. I pretty much disregard the “holiday season,” and I even cringe when I hear Christmas music in China during December. However, a holiday that’s mainly about food, now that’s my kind of holiday. The smell of turkey baking (my parents even roasted a bird over an open fire once, in the mammoth brick fireplace in our house) is imprinted in my sensory memory. So are the tense family moments during holiday “feeds,” especially when we discovered that Grandpa had taken off again to go fishing by himself, rather than risk spending time with his family. Oh yes, then there were Grandma’s famous potato rolls, which I tried but never succeeded in duplicating.

I spent my Thanksgiving afternoon hanging out at The Bookworm, a cafe / restaurant / English language library in the south part of Chengdu. It was pleasant to sit with a cup of coffee, studying Chinese, and browsing through the huge selection of books. My Thanksgiving dinner was Indian food at Namaste, where I enjoyed some chicken tikka masala, eggplant with tomato, garlic naan, and masala tea. It was dark when I rode my bicycle home, about a 45 minute ride, and it was getting chilly. Earlier in the day I’d done some cleaning and cooked up a batch of food for the dog. Tonight I watched Sideways on DVD, a charming road trip / character study movie.

I’ve been curiously on edge recently, unfocused, irritable, and stressed out. For a while I attributed it to too many teaching jobs, then I thought it was caffeine. Now I think it’s just depression. Maybe it’s SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. It also has to do with culture shock. Since I gave a pair of lectures on the subject recently (at both the old and new campuses of our university), I’ve realized that I’m still going through phases of culture shock in my third year in China. Get over it, already!

Movie Time

Frank Bigelow: I want to report a murder.

Homicide Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?

Frank Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.

Homicide Captain: Who was murdered?

Frank Bigelow: I was.



That’s how D.O.A., a gripping noir film from 1949, opens.

Run for your life! Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A.


I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately. Part of the 3rd phase of culture shock is supposedly the Regression Phase, in which one tends to obsess with artifacts of one’s native culture – films and books, other English speakers, etc. However, since a portion of these films are French, I don’t know exactly where they fit into the equation. Maybe I’m reliving my first culture shock – 30 years ago – in France.

Le Doulos: Jean-Paul Belmondo

First, dig these titles that I found at the pirated DVD stall south of the campus: French films Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais), Le doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville), MR73 (Olivier Marchal), and Paris (Cedric Klapisch); The new Coen Brothers movie Burn After Reading; the G.W. Pabst/Louis Brooks silent classic Pandora’s Box; the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side; and even my all-time fave movie, Anonioni’s Blow Up (1966, David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave). It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Also on the schedule have been some public-domain titles that I got off the Internet Archive at the lush but corny and mostly imaginary biopic of Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (notable chiefly for Lena Horne’s performance of Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man of Mine from Showboat); the very weird Beat the Devil (screenplay by Truman Capote and John Huston); His Girl Friday; the noir film D.O.A., Nosferatu, M (Peter Lorre in his best role), and Zero de conduite. Whew! Makes me tired just listing all of them. Oh yes, then there was The Screaming Skull, a horrifyingly bad low-budget film that scared the #%@$$&* out of me when I was a kid. The scene where the ghost of the dead wife rises out of the greenhouse and chases the current wife across the yard gave me nightmares for weeks. It’s still actually quite scary.


Who is the murderer? M

Pandora’s Box: Louise Brooks

Till the Clouds Roll By: Finale




Pizza, birthdays, and rabbits

A friend and I recently celebrated his birthday at a new pizza restaurant. The pizza was incredibly good, and cheap (39 yuan for the 12-inch version). The word on the street says that it beats Pizza Hut hands down.

Patrons are encouraged to write or draw pictures everywhere – in the menus, on the walls, but not on the food. We added our own illustrations to the menus.

…and one real rabbit:

I haven’t been able to get a shot of the rabbit who lives in our yard; the local twin boys received it as a gift and then kind of turned it loose. It lives happily with all the local cats. I did, however, capture this baby rabbit outside a local restaurant. Unfortunately, I think it ended up as someone’s lunch.

Viewer discretion advised

Today’s post is a catch-all, since I’ve been remiss lately in posting – either too busy or too lazy, I don’t know which.


Ass you like it
First, here’s a photo by my friend Alex Garzon of the price list in a local restaurant [it’s clearer if you click on the photo for the full-size version]. Note the colorful English translations:
Yeah, I’ll have your ass meat of big sausage, then
I’ll take a look at your beef big sausage.
Cooking tips
I don’t usually play the role of recipe maven, but a reader recently asked me how I whip up my fried rice with carrots and smoked tofu. I respectfully submit:
Fried rice with carrots and smoked tofu (serves one)

about 2 cups cooked rice (white or brown)
2 large carrots, sliced and steamed
1/4 cup sliced celery
2 slices of smoked tofu, cut into strips (in Sichuan it comes in pieces a little smaller than a slice of bread, a dark brown and smoky color)
2 tbsp. chopped onion
1 tbsp. pickled red chilies or black bean sauce (both Sichuan specialties)
1 tbsp. red wine vinegar
cooking oil (In China I use canola oil, because olive oil is much too expensive)

Heat a pan and add about 2 tbsp. oil. Cook the celery and onion until softened. Add carrots, tofu, chili or black bean sauce, and vinegar; stir until heated through. Stir in rice; stir fry until rice is hot. You can add a little water if rice gets too dry. You can add more seasoning to make it as spicy or mild as you want, but the smoky flavor will dominate the others.

Bon appétit!

Local comfort foods
As the local weather turns colder, and crisp autumn days morph into chilly winter ones, my thoughts turn to local comfort foods, specifically ones close at hand at the Hao Pengyou Restaurant:

Spicy beef with tofu – oily and comforting

 Gan bian tu dou si – “dry fried” potatoes, a spicy local version of French fries

Move it or lose it

Recycling is alive and well in China, but it takes an individual and very labor-intensive form. Some call them the “garbage people,” but in fact they’re local entrepreneurs who spend 10 or 12 hours a day at the local neighborhood collection sites. These people salvage every recyclable item, carrying the results away at the end of the day on three wheels, to local recycling centers that will pay them cash. This load looks a little precarious.

Kevin Morris, another American teacher at UESTC, has written an article about these local people on his blog, Barking at the Sun. Unfortunately, his site is currently blocked in China, but you can visit it through the link in the sidebar to the right.


 Ready to go

And finally…

 Just waiting.


The day that wouldn’t start

Improv shot #1


It’s my favorite time of the year: late October and almost Halloween. When I was a kid, Halloween was a time to let my imagination run wild, with outrageous costumes, calling up the spirits of the dead by holding séances, and watching the wind whip up mini-tornadoes of yellow-orange leaves as we went trick-or-treating. The holiday lost its luster later in life, but I still like to hear the chill wind whistling outside my windows, and to feel a bite to the autumn air. I’ve made promises to a couple of my classes to either tell them a ghost story or to come bearing gifts of candy next weekend.

Today was one of those days when everything started wrong. Well, not quite everything: I did manage to wake up at a quarter to six, beating the alarm clock, and to have time to walk the dog, pack my books, get dressed, and grab my two morning bao zi (steamed buns) on my way to the bus. I trekked all the way to the First Ring Road to catch the #34 to the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, where I meet my teaching assistant on Saturday mornings to board the teachers’ bus to the school’s suburban campus in Xindu. Today, though, my assistant was late. We missed the first bus at 7:50, then had to take a taxi for the 30-minute ride to Xindu. And a wild ride it was, the driver honking all the way, zigzagging across traffic lanes like a mad video game, almost getting flattened by trucks, and running red lights.

We arrived safely at the school only to find that we were locked out of the classroom building. After a period of yelling and door-pounding, my six students gained entry for us, fifteen minutes late for our class. Then the teachers’ lounge was locked, so I had no hot water for my tea, and I proceeded to lose 2 yuan in the instant coffee machine. Then our cassette tapes for the listening exercises (delivered to me by bicycle with a new tape player last night at 8 p.m.) were mysteriously missing Chapter 2, today’s lesson. I had to improvise and read my own listening exercises; good thing it’s a performing arts school, so the students understood improv.

The day ended on a better note, but the early lesson felt sluggish and poorly-planned. Today’s listening & speaking classes were about weather, seasons, camping, and 3 boys named Peter, Herb, and Mike. And a bear. No kidding. We then worked on some difficult words, such as chrysanthemum (a one-word tongue twister), decathlon, and triathlon. I talked about “weather” collocations: heat up, warm up, clear up, which are different from cool off, cool down, get cold, or turn cold.

Improv shot #2

During our lunch break we all ate at a nearby noodle restaurant, then it was time for writing class; in all, the day consists of six 45-minute periods. I tried to get a little creative, with moderate results. I introduced “freewriting,” which is supposed to be spontaneous and unedited, giving students 5 minutes to write anything they wanted beginning with “I remember….” Then I told them to turn over their papers and tell someone else what they had written, without looking at their writing. This caused some anxiety.

We then covered some boring, simple stuff such as connecting phrases and sentences with and, also, but, and so. We finished the class (and the day) with my first experiment in a “student-teacher dialogue journal.” Students were told to write about one thing they learned today, and then to write one question they had for the teacher. The teacher (moi) will respond in writing to each journal, and hand back the papers next Saturday. In some ways this job is ideal: it’s on a beautiful campus, there are only 8 students in the class (2 were absent today), they’re friendly and motivated, and it’s a change from my regular post-graduate English classes that are sometimes like talking to a brick wall. Oh, and the pay is good.

All in all, it was a moderately successful day, not too tiring, and I was home by 5 p.m. After walking and feeding the dog – and giving him his first bath in 5 weeks – I made myself a very tasty dinner of fried rice with carrots and smoked tofu. The smoky flavor permeates the dish, so little seasoning is required: basically, some chopped shallots, vinegar, and soy sauce. The smoked tofu is a recent discovery, and I picked some up at a local market yesterday; it comes in rectangular dark-brown slices, and the flavor is a little like smoked cheese.

Next time I’ll write about the rest of my teaching jobs; I’ve become something of a teachaholic lately.

Improv shot #3

How to feed a dog

I’m working too much. I taught 6 days last week – more about that later – and then was struck down by an allergy attack from smoke in the air from crop burning. Tonight I finally have some breathing space.

Oh, the hazards of being a doggy daddy. The photo below was the result of a nasty canine bacterial skin condition which I won’t describe in detail. Xiao Gou Gou had to spend 3 afternoons in a row at the doctor’s office, spread-eagled on a table with his legs tied down, hooked up to an IV drip. Come to think of it, sounds like a sex fantasy I once had (minus the IV drip). I sat patiently by him for 2 hours at a time as he endured this torture, sometimes howling and trying to break free.

This is NOT fun – the reluctant patient
Bottom line: the poor dog has either a vitamin deficiency or food allergies. So that’s what all that scratching was about.
XGG is slowly healing, but once the vet bill had reached 1,000 yuan, I called it quits and decided to practice home care. My grandfather, after being asked about his doctors’ prognosis, once pointed to himself and famously declared, “This – this is the doctor.” He was a self-centered S.O.B.

Feeling a little disoriented
I managed to find some home-cooked dog food recipes online, and then I began to experiment with a healthful, hypoallergenic diet. So, my cooking has gone to the dogs. It’s pretty easy, actually: find all the vitamin-packed foods you can, chop them up or mash them, mix with diced chicken meat or ground pork, form the stuff into balls, and steam them.

Raw material

The recipe: steamed carrots and sweet potatoes, chopped celery and cucumber, some mashed cooked beans, a ripe banana, chopped cooked chicken, ground pork, 2 eggs, about a cup and a half of oatmeal, some crushed vitamin pills, grated fresh ginger, cinnamon, and allspice.

It’s a hands-on process. Mix well, form into balls.
I put the meat-vegetable balls into the steamer basket of my rice cooker. It’s convenient because I can cook something else – rice, soup, chicken – at the same time. Steam for about 20 minutes. Voila! Bon apetit.
Ready for the cooking phase

Waiting (im)patiently. He’s getting used to the plastic “Elizabeth” collar, but wishes it were a bit more fancy.

All gone!

All in the family

My schedule is increasingly busy lately. Since the National Holiday week, I’ve added a Monday evening business English class at Sichuan University. The students, who all work at a local pharmaceutical company, are loads of fun and incredibly lively. I continue to teach six classes a week at my regular university, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday mornings. My other business English class, at a software company, meets for 3 hours on both Tuesday and Thursday evenings. This week I’m keeping them busy with telephone etiquette, deciphering answering machine messages, and performing role plays to build their confidence.

I wasn’t quite busy enough, so I’m adding a new gig teaching about 10 students at a school in Xindu, 30 minutes away, for a 6-hour stretch on Saturdays. Sheesh. On top of that, I just got another editing assignment for the translation service for which I free-lance. I’m lucky I have the time to sit down this evening and blog.

The theme for my regular post-graduate classes this week was families. I made use of some of my scanned images of ancient family photos, and gave what I thought was an entertaining spiel about my family history. I started the classes by having students free-write for 5 minutes about their favorite family member. Then, they interviewed a partner about their family history, asking such questions as “Do you know the names of your great-grandparents?” It was amazing how many of them knew nothing of their families further than one generation back. We then talked about such terms as migration, immigrate, emigrate, ancestry, “the old country,”, genealogy, paternal, maternal, nuclear or extended families, single-parent families, and surrogate families.

I then briefly introduced some of my own ancestors, by way of explaining that most Americans are of mixed ancestry, and that my own family had its roots in at least four different countries: Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. The stiff, slightly uncomfortable-looking portraits of the 19th century amused the students, as did my recounting of my grandmother’s family’s migration across the U.S. to homestead in Colorado.

One of my family’s oldest photos, a tintype of my grandmother’s relations from about 1880. They don’t look very happy.

My grandmother’s parents in 1903. Her father immigrated from Ireland, but left the family when she was 4, to return to his country to die. Strange.

Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show. They were a featured act for the Sells Flats Circus, for whom my grandmother’s stepbrother worked as an accountant.

Family group, 1920s. The woman in the center is my grandmother, Margaret Wilson Bush.

My grandmother wrote down her family history for me and my brother Kenton, in a notebook we gave her titled Everything I always wanted to write* – *but never had the time or the place. To encourage students to open up and tell their own family stories in small groups, I read part of her story to my classes:

My mother, Catherine Miller, her mother Elizabeth Miller and a brother Wilford migrated from Indiana to around Pleasant Hill, Mo. Thence to Kiowa, Colorado, where my grandfather, Herbert Lyman Miller, homesteaded 640 acres of land in the early 1890s. I found out just a few years ago that the reason they left Missouri was because of something illegal that Grandfather Miller had committed – like a forgery….

…When they went to Kiowa by wagon the grass was lush and ideal for the raising of cattle. There were many rattlesnakes and tramps. I recall mother telling of one of lazy tramp that ask for a drink of water and mother told him the water was out in the yard. The fellow was so lazy and indolent that he drank out of the horse trough instead of pumping a fresh dipper of water. She always had her hand on a rifle back of the door when there were callers like the tramps. She was an excellent shot with a rifle and told many tales of shooting rattlesnakes.

It seems the venture on the ranch wasn’t too successful due to grandfather’s thirst for liquor and the many trips down to Denver.

Another word about the ranch at Kiowa – they built their own house or it must have been a cabin. It’s difficult to imagine young people of the ages of my mother and uncle, living miles from civilization without radio, TV, record players or any of the things we have now to make a desolate place more endurable. They were made to arise at 2 a.m., get breakfast and then just sit it out until daybreak. There were always hot biscuits to be made for each meal, or cornbread. The only fruits they had were dried. Can one imagine what dried raspberries must have been like? One can live with dried apples peaches and apricots. Mother used to save rags and tin foil and send it to Denver with her father in order to have a few extra pennies. However, when grandfather would get back home there would be no money left. In those days they drove the cattle to the markets to sell them….

I like this photo, but don’t know the location. The family’s homestead in Colorado may have looked something like this.

Culture shock

Always time for one more.
A new book arrived today, just in time for the National Day holiday week. It’s Peter Matthiessen’s Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals. It’s a long-awaited treat from, and not a moment too soon, for I’ve just finished reading, or re-reading, several books along the same theme, i.e. travel, spiritual and otherwise. My book list includes A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey, Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot, Stones of Silence by George Schaller, and Mustang: The Lost Kingdom by Michel Peissel.

Due to the complexities of Chinese national holidays, officially we only have 3 days off for National Day. Thankfully, everyone is able to “buy” two extra days by working on Saturday and Sunday this weekend, then having an entire week off before we have to work again a week from tomorrow. This meant rising at 5:30 am to teach Saturday and Sunday classes to “make up” for taking off Monday and Tuesday. To lessen the pain, I spent two days showing Chaplin’s Modern Times to my classes. It’s always a big hit, but as usual, I think of really great ideas for class activities around the film after I’ve shown it.


 Room with a view: kitchen prep, Mid-Autumn Festival night

My head has been spinning with lesson plans. For my business English class, I had the students spend an evening practicing how to direct the “flow” of a conversation, for example:


Openers Hi, aren’t you…?

Response/Acknowledgment I see. That’s interesting.

Re-directing Speaking of food, the other day I….

Closing Gosh, is that the time? Gotta run.


Then another teacher mentioned “collocations,” or clumps of words usually used together (I guess I’ll have to make do with it), and my brain started humming with activity. I managed to jot down these two-word responses or exclamations used in American English during my mini-brainstorm:


Way cool.
That’s hot.
That’s bitchin’.
As if!
Rock on.
Go figure.
No way!
Get real.
No kidding?
Far out.

Say what?

Get lost!

Get out!
That’s awesome.
For real?
Yeah, right.
For sure.
Righteous, dude!
That’s ridiculous.
My word!
Tsk, tsk.

These phrases may not actually give you culture shock, but some of my students might be taken aback if I respond to their statements by exclaiming “Get out!” Offended, they might imagine that I mean “Leave the room!” when in reality the comment is shorthand for “Get outta town!” (or “Get outta here!”) which, most Americans would realize, means “I don’t believe it! Really?” As I recall, Elaine on Seinfeld accompanied this statement by forcefully pushing people backward, propelling them by her own disbelief.

The real culture shock, though, is the theme of my upcoming lecture for the university, highlighting my oh-so-unbelievable encounters with all things Chinese during the past two years. As a bonus, I will give a preview of the shocking culture of my “native” Los Angeles, should anyone choose to visit there. With luck, I’ll be able to incorporate some film clips, amusing illustrations, and other tricks to fill up one hour onstage. Oh, yes, one other Americanism for this evening: “Break a leg!”