A Day in the Life of a Beastie Boy

Since I've been blatantly pre-occupied with it, I'd like to give you a glimpse into my humble lifestyle here. Humble by Western standards, of course - quite glamorous to the Chinese, in contrast. It's curious, too, because one of the standard questions I get from the locals besides the "where are you from" and "what do you do" is "how much money do you make." I don't mind telling if I'm never going to see them again, and perhaps that's why they ask as well. I could probably get away with saying any number, but I don't want to meet anyone again later in a dark alley (there are lots)! Either way, the response is almost the same: a mixture of wonderment and contempt, often followed with a doubtful "is it enough?" Yes. Yes it is. I save away approximately 80% of my income each month, simply because I'm a low-maintenance kind of guy. Food? Check. Internet connection? Check. That figure could be as much as 95% if I cut back on the fancy dinners and alcohol consumption that make for a decent social life.

While most people here save because they don't know when a costly medical disaster might strike (health care is surprisingly similar to the US, as far as what the patient has to deal with), I look at it as a long-term investment. The entire world seems to know that China's currency is undervalued, and when international pressure finally forces the government to.. do whatever it is you do when your currency is undervalued.. it may just be the best case of "your money working for you" that I've experienced. Compared to the cratered mutual funds back in the US, anything would be better - a kick to the junk, perhaps.

And so, I present you with a normal day in the humble life of a breathtakingly beautiful, stunningly rich, and well-endowed man... casually living in China:

I'm awake, likely at the computer. This moment blurs in with the rest of those long hours seated in front of a screen in a dim light, but alas, it's a new day, so we had to start here. Am I studying Chinese with Anki? Listening to music and idly browsing? Getting my ass kicked by GNU Go? All are very real possibilities, but don't really "feel" like China. Sorry! That's because I'm not a tourist; I live here. That perspective affects a lot of things.

Perhaps more telling of Harbin are the numerous beer cans stacked about. I'm not eating steamed dumplings because they wouldn't be fresh, but I've got some sunflower-seed brittle from the bakery across the street that helps with my fiber needs (and when squatting toilets are all you have, you want your stool to be solid). I might be snacking and drinking a little, likely thinking "I should head to bed soon."

A few hours later, "I should head to bed soon" finally battles its way through the warzone that is my cerebral cortex. I climb into a toasty-warm bed thanks to the plastic sack of hot water I left in it earlier. This stupidly simple device is a game-changer because it actually makes me want to go to bed. With the temperature falling a bit more every day, I predict it will soon be upgraded to life-saver status. I'm wearing oh-so-comfortable windpants and a ratty T-shirt that is in fact older than most of my students.

If it's a weekday - and statistically, this is likely - I can relax and enjoy waking up without the alarm on my pre-paid phone. The sun by now is way too annoying even for my closed eyes to ignore, in spite of having two layers of curtains blockading the window. Time to get up, slide my feet into my bargain-bartered fuzzy slippers (just look like you're about to walk away into the next store over), and face the day. Based on my class schedule, the day actually begins anywhere from 3-5PM and ends at around 8. This is a good thing.

From here, I can spend 30 minutes "getting ready" for the day. Living alone is great because it brings out the nudist in you. Showering? Great! I'm all ready. Let me just check my e-mail first. Oh, that's an interesting website. Great music! Where's a torrent? Oh, friends on Skype? Thank goodness it's not a video chat! What's the rush on the shower, I've got all morning!

If amidst all this mayhem, this crucial moment is remembered, I will call in to work and have lunch ordered on the house. Half of the time, I forget. I don't think it's a comment on my absent-mindedness as much as it is a comment on the quality of our menu options. We are allowed up to 10RMB and anything beyond is out-of-pocket. Rice is 1RMB, a pile of sauced veggies is 5, and the meat dishes that aren't just meat-flavored breading are 10+. I quickly learned not to question the logic in pricing, and later, not to question the variance in the actual dishes. Sometimes you get thick chunks of quality meat slathered in delectable sauces, and other times, you're lucky if there's any real meat attached to the cubes of fat littering your half-cooked vegetables. I suspect the latter only happens because with delivery, the customers are not within easy reach of the so-called chefs. I've seen people here in fights for lesser slights than skimping on ingredients.

After the order is placed, I get my stuff in order and head out the door within half an hour, lest lunch arrive and sit until cold.

I step out from my bomb shelter, inspect the tiles out front to see if they've sunk any lower, and head towards the market area. I'm way too late for there to be a market anymore - that's getting old by 9AM. I will likely encounter a number of things: junk-collectors banging on buckets with tubes of plastic to get someone's attention, as though they weren't already riding a giant metal tricycle; cabbages and leeks bunched together on the ground, in window-sills, balconies, or anywhere else the sun might shine (apparently being dried out prior to in-house storage during the winter); phlegm, one of many, many things that makes me question why anyone would want to set their vegetables on the ground; vomit, usually obvious from lively color and accompanying rice or noodle fragments; and Chinese people curiously (sometimes cautiously) eyeing and possibly commenting on me. The most amusing way to handle this situation in any situation is to feign ignorance and continue listening, then mid-whisper, laugh heartily. This always catches them off-guard with mixed reactions, unless they've read the previous sentence, which is unlikely, as I just finished typing it. Be sure they're indeed talking about you, or you'll just look like a madman - good reactions, either way.

I'm at the school eating and studying some Chinese from the same book that I received upon arrival months ago. Look, I'm not that bad - I've done a lot of self-study. The book is what's supplementary! At 2:30, I might be meeting my Chinese friend to do some studying from said book. If not, I've likely got a Chinese lesson scheduled with a teaching assistant at 3:30, so there's some Chinese studying going on one way or another.

The language is dead easy if you're good at remembering arbitrary sounds and glyphs that have no connection to your native language. Luckily, I've studied Japanese before, so the glyphs are only sort of arbitrary. 书 (Chinese, pronounced "shu", meaning "book") and 本 (Japanese, pronounced "hon", meaning "book") are practically identical, right? Well, how about 写 (Chinese, pronounced "xie", meaning "to write") and 書 (Japanese, pronounced "ka", meaning "to write")? But hold on! 写 is the simplified Chinese version of the traditional character 書, so they're both.. kind of talking about book- or writing-related activities! Ha ha, how simple it is after all!

Ok, ok.. so it is a little challenging: I understand why half of the long-term teachers here have given up on it (the speaking, nevermind the characters!) already. Honestly though, it has little to do with the difficulty of the foreign language and everything to do with your environment. Surround yourself with English-speakers and.. surprise! You're complacent. Don't underestimate the value of one's sanity, however. Working here, I can assure you that it's a precious commodity.

I study Chinese and simultaneously contemplate suicide, then it's time to get ready for class.

I spend 30 minutes hastily-yet-effectively preparing a lesson plan for the coming 2 hours of class time. This may seem reckless, and it is, but it always works. Some days are better than others, but there are diminishing returns for time invested into planning and 1 hour is about the most I could invest. It wouldn't even be an hour's worth - it would be the same 30 minutes of productivity interspersed with random musings about who knows what - more pedophilia jokes? Better to keep the pressure on and work well than to further alienate the teachers who can't handle a good dead baby visual. For the record, there is no HR department nor workplace ethics laws (eg. sexual harassement) for them to spring up from. This is also a good thing (unless you're being sexually harassed, which I'm not) because otherwise we'd be swimming in pink slips, or worse: horribly, horribly bored.

Class. This is worthy of its own post.. or book. In short, if everyone can learn something new, practice using it, run around a bit and have a laugh - without brutally injuring anyone - I consider it a success. Most classes are successful.

I'm back in the apartment being productive. This could be any number of things: studying Chinese, working on web applications, updating the blogg...  Yes, so I guess some of those things hold my attention more than others. Sometimes it's a later dinner or a movie, but most often it's a period of intense introspection. As the winter nears, I expect this to increase to near-hermit levels. Only time will tell. At least then I won't have an excuse to not update this page, even if I won't be doing anything worth updating for. I suppose I do have a backlog of stories...

Anyhow, I must adjourn here. Tomorrow isn't one of the lazy weekdays I've just described to you above, but a 10-hour trip through the deepest circles of hell and back. I will teach four 2-hour classes back-to-back with minimal time for breaks, beginning at 8:00AM and ending whenever the screaming stops. It's hard to recall all of the details, as I just wake up in a haze on the cold, wooden floor of my apartment, covered in blood.

If you've seen Event Horizon ("Where we're going, we won't need eyes"), you'll know what I mean.

Sweet dreams!

In the Jungle

I'd like to publicly apologize to all teachers I've ever had in my life. I didn't realize your job was as difficult or stressful as it actually is. Perhaps you were just really good and made it look easy, or perhaps (like most of the students I've been in front of) even if you weren't, you were at least clever enough to exploit how forgetful and easily amused children can be.

Even though I'm only a few weeks into my training, I've had the opportunity to observe and "teach" a number of classes. I say "teach" because I'm merely getting a 4-week certification instead of a 4-year degree. In spite of the short time-frame, we've been exposed to heaps of information and it's been difficult to retain and apply it all. It seems like each answer spawns yet another slew of questions that could never be answered in the short time we have in this course. Child development, psychology, sociology, linguistics... I wish I had the time to drown in a pile of books.

Teaching stands out to me as a challenge because you are thrown into a jungle. Your eyes slowly peer over the cover of a book; camoflauged, you quickly scan your surroundings. You spot the weakest prey - that little bastard in the corner who isn't paying attention to anything but the exquisite flavor of his own snot. It will be an easy kill. "Andy!" you shout. He turns, but it's too late... you're already behind him and pounce: "Point to the line we're on."

He is so dead.

As a teacher, the classroom is your domain. It's absolutely primal - kill or get killed. The struggle is unrelenting. Even if you like the students, you can't trust them, and you can't give an inch or they'll soon be a mile past and you'll never be able to bring them back. It's not all hell, but the point is you simply have to bring your A-game all the time, which is not only challenging, but tiring as hell. I can't be wrong for 8 hours straight. Compare that to programming, where you type up some code, click "run," and if it crashes, well, now you know you have a problem to fix. Granted, I'm teaching English, my native language, but have you seen English? Yes, you are using English right now, but try reading aloud the following poem (“English Is Tough Stuff” by G. Nolst):

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.


Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.


Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.


Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.


Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.


There's more to the rhyme, but I rest my case: English sucks. Granted, most of my students aren't at that sort of level, but just last week I was explaining the process of mining bauxite to extract aluminum for use in manufacturing... so it's still easy to get tripped up. Additionally, I've learned about the indigenous peoples of Jamaica and Barbados, debated the idea of mandatory forced labor for convicted criminals, and dissected the cultural differences between Eastern and Western civilization. Belive me, I enjoy such topics immensely, since I'm learning as well, but it takes much more effort to prepare for than, say, something like "He is a boy. She is a girl." I find that in teaching English, I use the language barrier as a security blanket of sorts to preserve my sanity. This might be a bad habit to begin, but when you're trying to convey the meaning of he/she to a bunch of pre-schoolers who'd rather eat the book than look at it, everything helps - even muttering on about transgenderism.

Working at a private school in China has its merits. The simple fact that I could work here because I have a degree and am a native speaker is amazing in its own. In the US and some other Western societies, I'd probably have already been served litigation for "inappropriately touching a student" (read: giving a high-five). Not that young, male teachers are often trusted around young kids in the first place. I'll be certain to devote some time to this issue after I've researched it further. In the meantime, here's a quick dose of the paranoia that can be so quick to ruin the lives of innocent men. It wasn't too long ago that a friend and I took some sandwiches to a public park to eat and catch up on things. We were sitting near a playground with a bunch of kids running around and while I can't say for sure whether we were getting the evil eye from any parents nearby, there was certainly discomfort in the air. Naturally, after finishing our meal, we headed straight for the swings; I'll be damned if I'm going to sit idly by and perpetuate the idiocy.

For now, back to lesson planning so I don't get eaten alive tomorrow.
Your assignment is to have fun. Jump from a swing, bounce on a trampoline, eat vanilla pudding, pretend the floor is lava - do whatever it takes - just remember that everything doesn't have to be so serious all the time.

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