Friday, February 26, 2010

My favorite things...

I don't know if I mentioned it, but I'm scheduled to teach something called "Audio-Visual English" to freshman English majors in the upcoming semester. What is AV English? Good question. As best as I can figure out, the course usually consists of a Chinese professor going over language learning DVDs with the class. Which means that I can do most anything that I want to! Hooray! I'm calling the class "Media and Culture". Or "American Culture in the Media" Or how about "Things about America that Dave Likes or finds Interesting In No Particular Order"?

This is where you come in. I'm looking for material. What is your Absolute Favorite Thing on the Internet? Bonus for stuff that's easy to understand, is particularly revealing about American culture, or applies particularly to language learning. You can email me links, but it's easier to leave stuff in the comments - that way we all get to enjoy it. Thanks for your help!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Guess you've really made it when you can finally buy that blown glass dragon you've had your eye on...

Cut glass dragon for sale, Singapore

There are plenty of tschotskes in the world, but this one in Singapore caught my eye for some reason. The label reads:

“Ascend to Succeed

Climb high and Strive wholeheartedly
for a commanding view
Watch timing and circumstances
Grasp opportunities to show strength
Embrace victories all the way to the top”

price: SGD 2,680

Check out Jane in a ...


...burqa? Okay, not a burqa, but its more colorful Malaysian equivalent that our friend and local Peace Corps volunteer Emma brought back from her travels there. Anyway, ain't she sweet?


Oh, and in the interest of fairness (and marital self-preservation), here's a more conventional example of her sparkling beauty - this picture from the ferry just outside of Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. About 30 degrees warmer. (Still sweet!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Learning from Chickens

This may be a good time to bring up this excellent article that I read last week, from an author that knows his chickens. Some interesting bits from the conclusion:

In today's economic climate, efficiency and competitiveness are the guiding principles of business, of life; more product faster, while taking up less space. But are these concepts in our interests at all? Efficiency without ethics is psychopathic. And how much cleverer than chickens are we, ultimately?

So what do I get from chickens? Simple lessons like these: competition without co-operation is nonsense; you can't win by simply eradicating all the opposition - that's a pyrrhic victory. In life, winning really isn't everything - it isn't even anything. Taking part is all.

The next question, then: How can we raise a chicken or two on the roof of our six-story apartment building?

The quest for the Mysterious Operatic Angel Voice at Five in the Morning

It began the morning after we got back from our vacation. Starting around VeryDark:30, I heard it outside our window - what sounded like a boy soprano singing three very clear notes. It sounded like the first three notes of the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (for those of you who remember that movie), and was so strange and oddly beautiful I had to shake Jane awake a little bit to make sure that she had heard it too and that I wasn’t dreaming. Yes, I even took a video of it. If you turn the volume way up, you can just hear it at about ten seconds to go:

This continued for almost a week. Every morning, there’d be the same sounds: roosters crowing, construction machinery, and this hallucinatory singing echoing from afar. Finally, at 5:30 or so one Saturday morning, I resolved to track down the source, so I dragged myself out of bed and headed out the university gate into the “village” of Hongguang.

A parenthetical note: Remind me to explain our village sometime! I put the word in quotes because while parts of the world outside our gate resemble what we’d think of as a village, (four or five blocks square, dusty side roads, outdoor market with live chickens for sale) other parts most decidedly don’t (main street lined with 30-40 clothing stores, several 20 story apartment buildings and high speed train station under construction, etc.).

Anyway, being out at five thirty in the morning was a surreal experience. Things seem to be much more mystical than they usually are at that hour, and that effect was compounded by the fact that it was the day of New Year’s Eve, which meant that almost nobody was around. I made a brand new discovery that many of the small stores in the area have small clear plexiglass signs that blink red or green in the dark! I had rare insights into the nature of humanity which I promptly forgot because I didn’t write them down! But alas, no singing sound.

Until I headed back up the stairway, that is. Then I heard it, clear as a bell. Well, clear as a chicken, I should say. I walked around the back of our building, and while I couldn’t pinpoint the actual apartment that it was coming from, the voice definitely had the ring of poultry to it. The echoing from afar bit? More likely, echoing from the buildings across the alley from us. It still sounded otherworldly, though, and not like any other chicken or rooster that I’d ever heard. Maybe a peacock? Naah.

The next day was Chinese New Years, and we slept in because the fireworks (and resulting adrenaline) kept us awake until three in the morning. The morning after that, not surprisingly - no chickens. They’d all, presumably, ended up as a dish on the New Year’s table. Jane and I exchanged a mutual sigh, and we didn’t mention it to our recently vegetarian kids.

Then, two mornings later - the angelic chicken voice returned! Three notes, as clear as anything. Sometimes two. A week later, and I’m still hearing the notes as I write this blog post. Did someone buy a new chicken? Was the chicken just laying low over New Year’s? Are we listening to the voice of a ghost chicken from the other side? Did a family take as much wonder in the voice of this chicken as we did and decide to raise this bird as a family pet? Or was it even a chicken after all?

There are some things about living in a culture that, try as you may, you never ever will know. Maybe, some day soon, I will go around to different apartments, start knocking on doors, and become known as that crazy foreigner who asks about chickens. Maybe I will finally see this angel chicken. I can picture her now, comfortably asleep on a red velvet pillow with gold embroidery. Every morning she walks to the window opened for her by her owner, and sings her perfect angel chicken song five times before being stroked and fed two handfuls of the the finest grain money can buy. Or maybe some things are destined to always remain a mystery. Sleep well, angel chicken. Your secret is safe with all of us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Monks online

IMG_1169, originally uploaded by zawelski.

(Dave here, even though it shows up as Jane when I post directly from Flickr)

Continuing on with my series of off-the-top-of-my-head blog posts about random pictures from our vacation, this is Boonsaeng, a 24 year old Buddhist monk that we met while we were visiting a temple in Chaing Mai. Actually, he was the one who approached us for enlightenment. The subject? Verb / noun agreement in English direct object clauses, of course! We had a very interesting chat for a half hour or so, and gave him our Skype user name in case he wanted to hook up with our students for more English practice. If anyone wants to hook up with him, we can pass his contact info along - he's an interesting guy and would love to talk...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

I saw this video a while ago, but it was good to watch again tonight after a fairly grey day of being inside 95% of the day. (and most definitely NOT being on the beach)

Oh yeah, that's right - we can fly! Amazing...!

Before I get too much further...

Vintage records for sale, Singapore

I should have all of you click here for more photos of Singapore, with actual comments, that I posted to Facebook earlier this week. (and by "all of you", I mean mostly my mom, who isn't on Facebook yet) Also here for photos of our time in Chiang Mai. No pressure, Mom...

Sentosa Island


Sentosa is a theme park like island just to the south of Singapore that we went to for a day. (Think Wisconsin Dells, but much warmer and a bit more expensive) They've got lots of tourist trap stuff, from bungee jumping to "Eco-Segway Island Adventures". Out of respect to our 100 % RMB travel fund, we headed straight to the artificial beaches, which are made with sand imported from Indonesia and have view of some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. (Above, a view of our children hailing a passing oil tanker.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blue and Green

Orchid, Singapore Botanic Garden

One thing that hit us as a bit of a shock coming to Singapore (and returning to China as well) was the color of the landscape. The sky was blue and leaves were green! This was in opposition to our area of China, where the sky is usually grey and the leaves are greenish grey. Part of the greyness is due to geography - Sichuan lies in a natural basin bordered by the foothills of the Himalayas, and clouds and fog tend to form as the warm humid air from the basin meets the cooler air coming down from the mountains.

Most of the grey, however, comes from other sources. For example, here is a picture of the tree right outside the entrance to our apartment:

leaves with grit, Hongguang

As you can see, everything outside is usually covered by a layer of brownish grit. (The green stripe on the center leaf is where I rubbed off the dirt for comparison.) Cars are gritty, windows are gritty, busses are gritty, even stray cats are gritty. Our plastic clothes hangars upon which we hang our clean clothes to dry - on a pole with a loop on the end outside our back window - get gritty, as Jane discovered, much to her dismay in November. Imagine our “clean” clothes. Everything that stays outside for any length of time gets covered with a thin film of pollution.

As we were traveling and told other Westerners whom we met about our observations of Chinese pollution, most people’s reaction was something along the lines of “and exactly why do people live in such a polluted country?” Indeed, there are times that we ask ourselves the same question. It’s very easy living here as an American to be more than a bit smug about how (relatively) clean the air is back home. Even in the relatively polluted West Side of Chicago, where we lived for a couple of years, if you hang a white sheet outside to dry for a couple of days, chances are that it will remain white.

But to simply hack and cough and bash China for the pollution it creates misses the point. Those of you in America right now - take a minute to find any small plastic household item worth less than $50 nearby. Really, go ahead. I’ll wait. (Yes, I’m doing an incredible web based remote mind reading trick here.) Now, take a minute to focus on that item, and look for a label. Keep the label in your mind, counting slowly to ten and focusing on your browser window. Did that label happen to say, ummmmmm, lets see... Made In China? Am I good, or what?

Seriously, are you still holding on to that doohickey? If you are, you’re looking at an example of an item with externalized costs. Because if you make something that you can ship across the Pacific Ocean and sell it for less than fifty bucks and still make money on it, I can almost guarantee you that you’re doing some serious polluting while making that item, and most of that pollution is staying in China. And my guess is that China, because it has 1.3 billion people who all would rather live with severe pollution than the severe poverty of the last couple of generations, is willing to keep our pollution around for a little bit longer...

Spot the Hidden Jenniey...


(or Jane, if you prefer) The first place we went to in Singapore was the Orchid Collection at the National Botanical Garden. Our kids started to wilt a bit in the heat, but the flowers were way cool.



More here on a set on Flickr.

Let's see - where were we?


Okay, on with vacation pictures! (We're milking our spare blogging time while we've got it) This is our view from our friend Ed's 12th floor apartment, which he very generously let us use as our base for the time we were in Singapore. I'm posting these pictures to:

A) mention that it's pleasantly uncanny to be in a skyscraper in a major metropolitan area and hear mynah birds outside the window when you wake up, and

B) give a major shout out to Ed for letting us have full use of his place, and for his excellent hosting skills in general. Thanks, Ed!

The smoke has cleared somewhat...

...though we were awakened at 7:30 this morning by more firecrackers outside our window. Jane is back in bed catching up on sleep - here are a few more short videos of New Year's last night.

Back with a Bang

Happy New Year! So it turns out that the internet card sellers were back in business yesterday morning, so we've been able to get online after all. Midnight on New Year's in China is, um, intense to say the least - here's a video Jane took (linked via Facebook - let us know if it shows up) to give you some idea of the experience. More coming, but it's now three in the morning and quiet, so I'm getting some sleep...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ghost Town

Well, due to a bit of miscalculation on our part, it looks like we won’t be on the internet much until next week sometime.

Most of the students are away on break until March, so the campus is already incredibly quiet. Now that New Year’s is coming up (this Sunday), it’s getting even more deserted. As you can see from the photo, everybody in our campus town is already starting to close up shop and go home for an extended holiday with their families, including the guy who sells the internet cards that we need to buy to refresh our account to go online. (We pay for internet by bandwidth used, and uploading all of our vacation pix as well as catching up on the news has burned through our account pretty quickly)

We’ve got about 2 RMB left on our account, with no way to get more until the phone card guy who’s usually outside the gate comes back from the holidays. It’s enough for the occasional email check over the week, but not much else. Tomorrow, we’re going into Chengdu to stock up on Western groceries at a big box store, then going to the market to lay in some more supplies and hunker down in the apartment for the week. (Good thing we’ve got a stack of DVDs that we bought around Christmas time.)

New Year’s (also called Spring Festival) seems to be a bit of Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. From what we’ve heard, most everyone spends all of New Year’s Eve cooking tons of food, then having a huge meal right before the New Year’s TV specials come on. Traditionally, you’re not supposed to even leave the apartment, because opening the door brings in bad luck. Lots of fireworks (they’ve already started) at midnight and it used to be that people weren’t supposed to sleep all night. The next day, New Year’s Day, is when you get out your new clothes and walk around and say hi to the neighbors. The whole country is on vacation officially for 7 days.

Being a vegetarian foreigner family of five in a meat-heavy country of single-children during a holiday that’s all about family regrouping together (and being on a university campus where everyone seems to be going home far away to someplace else), we’re outside the loop for this holiday, and not invited over to anyone’s house for dinner, so things will probably be pretty low-key around here for a bit. Kind of like being Jewish during Christmas, except that all the Chinese restaurants are closed.

Dunkin' Donuts!

One of the many (many many many) American chains we found in Singapore was Dunkin' Donuts. As you can see from the photo, there were a few cultural differences. I tried one the wasabi cheese donuts pictured, and while it was edible, I wouldn't highly recommend it...

Cue the opening Star Wars credits...

Coming to Singapore from China was a bit of a culture shock. Imagine Chicago's Mag Mile on Michigan Avenue located in the tropics, make the malls five times larger and much more sci-fi, and add more orchids and the sounds of jungle birds, and you've got Orchard Road.

the Sinks of Singapore

First of all, let me just say that Singapore knows how to do public bathrooms. If fundamentalist sinks around the world believe in sink heaven, I'd imagine that this is what they dream of becoming after they pass from this world to a better one...

C'mon and look at our pictures! You know you wanna...

IMG_6932, originally uploaded by zawelski.

I've been spending the last day or three back in China uploading and organizing pictures from our vacation onto Flickr, Jane asks, "Why are you spending time on Flickr? Nobody looks there but my Mom!" To which I say, "Umm, yeah?" and "Thanks for looking, Liz!" What can I say - I'm a visually oriented guy?
For all the rest of you that can't be bothered clicking over to our Flickr account, (or those of you who actually prefer things like, oh, titles and captions with their photos), coming up are a few posts featuring pics that are somehow interesting. Kinda like being forced to sit on the living room couch and look through photo albums, except that you can close the browser any time you want to....

Monday, February 8, 2010

What our kids are into lately

Don’t know if China has raised or lowered our standard of living, but here is a sampling of our kids’ favorite things on our vacation. First up is Xander, who is planning on building a fully functional helicopter when he’s seventeen or eighteen. Our guest house in Bangkok happened to be near the used auto parts section of town, so he was in seventh heaven for a morning wandering around stores full of engines and differentials and other miscellaneous parts as we feasted on street food. The kids are wholly convinced that everyone in Bangkok can build anything mechanical, so Xander’s planning on going there for a year of advanced engineering study in ten years or so.



Zekey has been discovering his talents in Earth Art -- more specifically, dragging a white plastic beach chair around the beach to make elaborate sets of “train tracks” that his brother and sister would run along gleefully.

IMG_1563 IMG_1564



Ysa, meanwhile, has adopted three or four more children into the family. To the untrained eye, they look like plastic water bottles, but they are actually her babies, named Babyang, Fabiyang, and Jang Yuen. (spellings approximate) She spent a good part of the trip with one or two bottles tucked into the front of her dress, and also got very good at putting them down for naps and making sure that they all had enough sunscreen on. Jang Yuen, the oldest, weighing in at about three liters in capacity, had a special place under the seat in front of us during our flight home, and is now resting comfortably in Ysa’s bed in Chengdu.

Our girl and her water bottle, Koh Lanta

I’m not sure exactly what this means. Either our kids are incredibly creative young geniuses, or Jane and I are being incredibly cheap, depriving our kids, and scarring them for life. Probably somewhere between the two. Anyway, if you’re thinking of sending the kids some kind of care package in China, just throw a couple of paper bags, some machine screws, and a rusty nail or two into a cardboard box and send it on over. They’ll probably end up playing with the box, anyway...

Two Pictures

Kantiang Beach, Koh Lanta

Here is a picture of the view about 50 feet from our bungalow that we stayed at in Koh Lanta up to last Friday. Evening sounds: cicadas, jungle birds, pounding of the surf, and the occasional Pink Floyd cover tune sung in a Thai accent from the band at the beach bar close by.


This is the view from the back window of our apartment here in China this morning. Evening sounds: horns honking on the highway, a dim rumble of traffic, and cats having loud angry, um, well, you know what cats do at four in the morning. (sorry to be graphic, but it was a bit of a rude awakening...) So, yeah, maybe a bit of readjusting coming up for all of us?

Now on to the glass half full side. We were incredibly lucky to have had a great enriching three weeks off, and we’ve now got three more weeks before classes start. Lots of time to hang out with the kids, plan lessons, practice our Chinese, and get out and about to see friends in town and in Chengdu.

The sun is now out here, and it’s warm enough in the apartment to walk around without long johns on. The kids are all happily returning to favorite toys and games, and it’s good to unpack and get a chance to shake the sand out of our clothes. Most importantly, we’ve all had lots of enriching experiences on our trip to share. More posts coming up soon!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The blog is back from vacation

Hi, everyone! As you may have noticed, the blog is now a bit more tan than usual. We’re not quite back home yet, but there’s something about a free wifi connection at the butdget airlines terminal in Kuala Lumpur that compels me to blog in a way that strolling the streets on Singapore or the beaches of Thailand haven’t. More post are on their way soon...