Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Littlest Wedding Crasher

My ties with Sam's family go long and deep. I've been to his hometown and met his parents. I've been to his sister's house, which she shares with her husband and 18-month old son. His daughter has known me all of her life; it was I who named her 'Erica'. My feelings of hurt and betrayal at Sam's hand notwithstanding, his family and I have forged bonds over the 7 years I've been here. 
I have been proof-reading and editing his brother-in-law's physics papers ever since Peter earned his doctorate, 4 years ago. Never mind the fact that I am only minimally educated and he is a professor; when it comes to English, I excel.

It doesn't hurt that I am a total science geek and read constantly and voraciously of everything I can get my hands on with regard to chemistry, maths and, of course, every physics discipline.

Three of his four papers that I edited have actually been published, and he has been awarded a several-million Yuan grant from the Government to study the effects of viscosity on irregular-shaped particles, with the intent to deliver a solution for injecting nanoparticles into cancerous cells. And I helped!

He has long intended to treat me to a nice meal as a thank you for my efforts. When Sam told me about it 2 years ago, I demurred. I was happy to help, and I would take any chance to get my science on! Still, nothing would do but to enjoy an expensive lunch at a fancy hotel.

Today was the day.

These past 2 weeks have been so hectic! On top of my regular schedule, I have been covering night and weekend classes for David, who is up to his eyeballs in senior thesis defense. Besides that, I won a contract to research and publish articles on becoming a tutor in various cities in the UK.

I'd never been to the UK, so I had to do a lot of research to make the articles sound like I knew everything about Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow, Scotland. No mean feat considering the limits on Internet pages I can access from China, my time constraints and a flaky WIFI connection.

Needless to say, last week was not the best time to suffer an allergy attack, but what does pollen care?

Starting Monday night, I was rudely awakened in the wee hours of the morning, heart pounding and gasping for breath. For the first 3 days of the week, I operated in a fugue of fatigue and lack of oxygen. Wednesday night, I gave up trying to lie down and just dozed, sitting up on the couch.

Thursday, my killer day, nearly did me in. At least I did not have any impromptu visits like I had the week before, but I did run into Tina, who wondered why I am never home in the evening. Apparently she couldn't see any light through my drapes and simply assumed I was out. I'm guessing she would have dropped in had she thought I was home, as is her wont. I am glad she didn't, because...

For the second time ever, I was working under a deadline. I had to get those articles written and formatted according to my client's wishes by a specific time.

Incapable of entertaining a thought beyond conducting classes, putting food in my mouth and trying to sleep, I didn't write a single word all week. That left only Friday, my deadline day, to get everything written and formatted.

No problem with the writing. I finally managed to get some decent sleep Thursday night, after teaching 9 periods (45-minute sessions). Friday morning saw me up at 7AM and at the keyboard shortly after.

I was banking on the fact that my client lives in France, meaning I would have an extra 6 hours to work, thanks to the time difference.

Unfortunately, he was online and messaging me at 2PM, my time, wondering where we stood on publishing. I had the articles done, but could not access the publishing platform! Could it have been because of the WannaCry worm attack?

Fortunately, he was very understanding and gave me an extra day.

That would have been great, except for the fact that I had to be in class nearly all day Saturday. And my computer was acting decidedly strange; it wouldn't load any pages. When the client's page finally did load, it refused my logon. After much cajoling and a few well-chosen curses, the Internet cooperated and...

Long and short: the work was completed on Saturday evening!

I was looking forward to enjoying a quiet Sunday, taking care of mundane tasks like laundry and house cleaning that I had been neglecting for the past 2 weeks. But first, maybe a small round of my favorite game app on my phone...

Oh, wait! A text message from Sam: his brother wants to treat us to lunch on Sunday. I was sorely tempted to beg off but, in the end, I agreed to go. And so it came to be that Penny, Erica and Sam turned up on my doorstep a full thirty minutes before they were expected.

It's all good. We've been friends long enough that they could see me put on my makeup. They sipped coffee while I primped and little Erica, ever my buddy, played with my deck of Uno cards. And then, we loaded up.

Not only was the lunch rush was in full swing, but the restaurant we were to eat at was hosting a wedding! Only flimsy pink panels segregated the wedding revelers from us ordinary diners. 

Erica payed little mind to the surroundings, still absorbed with the Uno cards (and me), until the MC intoned via loudspeaker on the other side of the partition. And then, the room was so loud we could do nothing but eat: talking was out of the question. 

My little darling nibbled a glutinous rice cake, gnawed on a braised rib and scooped a few potatoes out of the duck stew. And then, she was up and at'em! Parting the pink curtains directly behind us, she gaped in awe at the lavish event before her until a hostess chided her and pulled her back, decisively closing the curtain with her other hand. Undeterred, Erica waited until the Gardian of Pink Gauze disappeared and then she was back, taking in the whole scene, even snagging a decorative balloon.

                                                        The waitress, pulling her back.

She has to be the littlest wedding crasher ever!

Now that I was not so focused on matching green, red, yellow and blue cards, I could participate in the luncheon and, to an extent, the conversation.

Sam's dad has lost a lot of weight, and he looks much older than when I first met him. When talking  with him I couldn't help notice his breath had the unmistakable odor of ketosis. I wonder how his health really is.

Peter and June, the physicist and his wife, had brought their baby son. It was the first time I'd seen him in the flesh. You might think it strange that I didn't ask or want to hold him. The reason is simple: I can't fall in love with another child only to leave him behind in 6 weeks.

As it was, my eyes were stinging with repressed tears. How dear these people are to me! How ordinary, how casual to meet for a meal in a fine restaurant! How crushing the knowledge that, in less than 2 months, we will most likely never sit around a table together again.

Erica, her burst of food-induced energy spent, crawled up in my lap and we cuddled while she colored pictures on my phone. The tender weight of her, the sublime peace of this beautiful, trusting child. The joy of knowing she draws comfort from me just as much as I cherish these infrequent moments of closeness.

I can't bear it. It's easier to think of her as the world's littlest wedding crasher.     

                                                         The fate of the purloined ball

A Handwritten Note

One reason Thursdays are so terrible is that, smack in the middle of the day, just before lunch, I have the worst class I've ever had, including a group of ill-mannered future Chinese teachers of a couple of  years ago, who demanded I teach them something useful. In the end they turned out all right and grateful for my efforts.

Not that undying gratitude is my goal. I would rather see kids change from spoiled brats to thoughtful, conscientious young adults. That group I had before, they've done that. This group, I have my doubts.

There are a few good apples. Gayle, the best of the class, who I believe takes pity on me because hardly anyone participates. Loen, with her heart of gold, who wrote poetry when all the assignment called for was a bit of introspection. Serena, who, no matter how encouraging I am, bears the weight of every Chinese female before her: “You'll never be good enough; you're just a girl!”. Even though she is whip-smart, she shies away from participating in class, choosing intead to mouthe answers to questions I might pose.

And I know she mouthes them because I make it a point to watch her.

Mention, an angry and militant girl at the outset of her university experience, has mellowed into a seemingly ordinary freshman - who secretly reaches out to me. Over winter break she had taken a part-time job in a restaurant. Just before Lunar New Year, she slipped in the kitchen and shattered her right elbow. Naturally she had her parents nearby but, when she could, she was texting with me, keeping me up to date on her many surgeries and her hospital stay.

You should note that the Chinese are not big on pain killers. I can't imagine what this poor child had to endure as they manipulated her arm thrice daily, under the guise of therapy. One of the videos she sent me was of her howling in pain as the doctor repeatedly stretched and retracted her arm. Torture aside, as soon as she was able to grasp a pencil in her left hand and train it to write, she was practicing English, doing lessons that nobody demanded she complete. 

It is for students like her that I became a teacher.

Not for students like Victoria, Deana, Zoe and Major, who spend all of class time sitting in the back of the room, playing games on their phones. So little do they participate in class that I've taken to giving them a zero for that day's grade.

But the ones that really grab my goat and skin it are Gloria, Andi, Queena and Daisy. Gloria in particular.

They saunter into class late, even though they have twenty-five minutes to get there from their previous session. They also 'play' on their phone, usually sending messages on QQ and WeChat, and discussing whatever messages they get amongst each other. Not quietly.

Gloria likes to ridicule. The first time was when we were talking about money: I was illustrating the differences between Chinese currency and American. Apparently, she thought I was mispronouncing a particular denomination, even though its name is written on the bill and I can read (at least that much) Chinese.

The second time is when I was assigning their mid-term exam. I informed the class they could use any means possible to improve their presentation, including PPT (Powerpoint software). “What's PPT?” she asked.

“Do you know PPT?” I asked, pointing to the presentation currently on display through overhead projection.

She turned to Gayle, whom she happened to be sitting next to. Gayle explained, again using the term 'PPT'.

“OH! PPT! Why can't she just talk clearly?” Gloria sneered in Chinese, perhaps unaware, but most  likely simply not caring that I understood her.

I've been bullied before, and I remember distinctly how it feels. I'll be darned if I will let some teenager bully me in front of a classroom full of her peers, whether most of them focus on their phones or not. I vowed to draw my boundaries at the very next opportunity.

I don't think there will be a next opportunity.

Out of sheer frustration of trying to get this class to talk, I've taken to bringing paper to class and having them write down their thoughts. If there is time before the bell rings, they can read what they wrote out loud, but I planned to collect, correct and comment on their efforts, giving them their work back the next week.

ASSIGNMENT: Is it harder to be a boy or a girl in China?

It was meant for them to reflect on various social inequities and ponder a solution to same. A lot of their ideas were mundane – the girls have already been made scared of the pain of childbirth, for example. My lone boy, Durant, stated it was much harder to be a boy because boys are expected to be stoic and pay for everything.

The standout assertion was Gloria's: being a girl is harder. “You have a hard life until you grow old and ugly and nobody loves you, and you can only wait to die.”    

I know bullies get their meanness from somewhere. Until then, in her case, I thought it was simply that she was 'a little princess', the uniquely Chinese phenomenon where there are too many grandparents with too few grandchildren to spoil. Such children generally end up uncaring of others and totally self-absorbed.

I was forced to reconsider my rudest, meanest student. Clearly she has suffered, most likely a great deal, at the hands of some older woman. So much so that she hates older women in general.

Now I understand her attitude toward me.

What is this child facing? Her attitude will bring about a self-fulfilling prophecy: she will be continuously rejected, thus proving she is only worth the abuse she apparently grew up with. How much rage, masked in scorn, does she harbor? And, heavens forbid!, what will happen to her if it all lets loose? Even worse: what will happen to her if she continues to internalize it? 

For every other student, I wrote encouraging messages along the lines of: “Childbirth doesn't hurt that much thanks to modern medicine...”. Mention got a special message: “You are a strong, good person...” On Gloria's paper, I wrote only: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Gloria. I understand you much better now.”  

The very next week, much to my surprise, Gloria and her gang walked into class a few minutes before the bell rang and they all took their seats in the very front row. They stowed their phones and paid attention even though I was not firing on all cylinders (see previous post).

I put it down to the power of a handwritten note: those few words built a bridge between me and a girl who is doing her best to not seem troubled and hurt, but whose pain and rage exploded off the page she expressed it on.

We're not going to cuddle and cry together, but perhaps now she doesn't feel so all alone, even as she surrounds herself with as much noise and as many people as she can. This broken girl needed to know someone understands her, and now she has written testimony of it. And who knows? Maybe, after I am a safe distance from her, she might feel comfortable enough to chat with me via text message and open up even more.

I misstated earlier that students like Mention are the reason I became a teacher. Her ilk make the separation from my loved ones bearable and bring joy to my class, and that is indeed great.

The real reason I became a teacher is for the Gloria's who have sat in my classes over the years. Helping kids like her, even with such a little thing as a few words on a scrap of paper, making a difference to a kid begging to be validated.

To me, that's what being a mentor is all about.   

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

We Are at War!

This is not a reference to anything political, in spite of growing global turmoil and tensions. It has to do with a plague I suffered my first year here, when rats availed themselves to my living space (See The Rat Party entry, posted September, 2011).

The first year I lived at this school, my accommodations were dank and dark and moist and fetid, on the ground floor of a girl's dorm building in the original part of the school. After returning from a stateside visit, I came home to find telltale signs of rodents: streaks left by long tails in the dust coating my countertops. Droppings everywhere. Eerie squeals and squeaks at night. And once, horribly, a rat the size of a chihuahua, crawling on my leg as I slept.

The school's leaders did everything to ensure my comfort and safety, going so far as to pay for my hotel for the three days needed for an exterminator they hired to rid my home of rodents. Shortly after, as promised, I was moved into the under-construction housing area where, for a year, I was the only tenant. Since then, I've had swarms of mosquitoes, a colony of ants and a few roaches, but they didn't stay and they didn't necessarily bother me.

A few weeks ago, I heard restless, frantic tearing, coming from the dining room. From having lived in squalor in my younger years and from my experience in the Concrete Bunker – as I'd dubbed my first apartment on this campus, I knew what was going on: rats! Rats were attacking my store of flour!

I keep my flour in the dining room, with all of my other baking stuff, next to the oven and bread machine. My kitchen is too small to fit all of my western conveniences in and I have very little cabinet space. It just makes sense to keep the baking goods near the instruments that do the baking, don't you think?

Because I'd not suffered any type of pest invasion in this house, at least not on any significant or recurring scale, I'd seen no need to 'protect' my goods. Now I needed a change of plan.

And I needed to figure out where the rats were coming from. It seems unlikely that, after six years of my living here, they suddenly decided, en masse, to invade my home. Even more bizzare: while my former home in the girls' dorm was truly ground level, this apartment is several feet off the ground, ostensibly to discourage pests from trekking the four feet or so up into ground floor apartments.

However, with scavenging neighbors continuously attempting to turn my balcony and any area under my apartment windows into a recyclables storage facility (see Fighting with the Neighbors entry, posted February of this year), it stands to reason that some crafty rodent might have wanted shelter from the cold of winter just past, and could have made its nest inside someone's cardboard haul. From that bundle, it would be but an easy leap onto my residence platforms – the balcony or the ledge under my kitchen window. From there, any inlet would do: the hole drilled through concrete to feed the gas line into the house, for example.

Or, they could be coming up through the pipes. We've had flooding rains recently and my kitchen sink doesn't drain well while the campus is under water. However, I saw no evidence of any rodent activity or occupation under the sink. Still, as a precaution, I stuffed steel wool around the gas line and took to keeping the kitchen door closed at night. It is a sliding glass door, which removes the possibility of rats squeezing under. And, in fact, the rats were quite angry about the closed door. Furious scratching and squealing ensued.    

And then, nothing.

I thought I had my rat problem whipped until I did laundry. Because the washing machine draws its supply from the kitchen tap and that connection is not watertight, I drape a towel over the fixture; otherwise, water would shoot out all over the sink and backboard. That towel hangs on the kitchen window bars when not in use.

So, on this fine day of laundry washing, I placed the towel over the tap and noticed that my window screen had a rat-sized hole gnawed into it. Said hole was formerly concealed by the hanging towel. Clever rats! Gnawing a hole where I couldn't immediately see it...

Knee-jerk reaction: retract the screens and close the windows.

Brilliant move, I realize in retrospect. Now the rats are trapped inside my house. I should have just let that screen alone because, the next night, more commotion from the dining room. This time, sounds of claws on fabric. The rats were crawling up the inside of my closed drapes!

True enough, the next morning I found another screen ruined by another rat-sized hole.

Being fundamentally averse to killing anything, even a rodent or other pest, I despaired over how to drive these rats out, combing the internet for a humane solution to my problem.

Gary came over on Saturday. We were going to celebrate our mutual friend Shane's birthday but, before leaving, he and I were going to have breakfast together. As I was cooking, I could hear rats scampering in the dropped ceiling.

In the ceiling?

Let's think about it. These building are concrete shells. Unless I am sorely mistaken, even rats do not have teeth strong enough to chew their way through concrete. Unlike wood-framed houses, an infestation inside the walls of a concrete building is not likely. The only way I could reason rats in my ceiling is that they came from some apartment upstairs, via the vent hood chimney: there is only a plastic hose, similar to a dryer vent hose, connecting the vent hood to the concrete chimney. 

And then, rat logic kicked in.

Neighborhood scavengers living in this stairwell, who occasionally carry their booty upstairs, must have inadvertently introduced rats to our building. And, I suppose, with winter temperatures being so unkind, the rats must have been very happy to live indoors and feed on whatever was left laying around in the apartments above mine. But now, with spring dawning, they must want to return to the great outdoors, where food supplies are no doubt greater. In order to do that, they must find a way down, and then out. My apartment being on the first floor, it is here that they make their gamble for freedom. Finding nothing edible to induce them to take up my residence as theirs, my home was no more than a pit stop for them. With nothing but a plastic mesh screen between them and fresh air, they were but a few moments' gnaw away from restrictive human dwellings.

Telling are the bits of screen mesh, left on the dining room windowsill, indicating that the screen was gnawed from the inside. Equally revealing is the fact that last night, after clearing up some clutter in the dining room and the floor behind the dryer (which is also in the dining room), I heard no rat activity.    

Little did I know, at the outset of this rat adventure that I needed to do no more than to store my flour in a plastic container, thus making the only food source I had that rats were interested in unavailable. Once they found nothing they liked to eat, they were decamping on their own: a win all around!

The downside was that, because of the rats, the brownies I baked for Shane's birthday party collapsed. Unwilling to leave them on the table to cool overnight, I put them in the fridge immediately out of the oven. The next morning, I found the brownies had sunk in the center, resembling a shallow, chocolate volcano. I deemed them too ugly to serve to my friends.

Now I have a whole pan of brownies to eat and no rats to help. Not exactly paradise, but not too bad a deal!   

A New Record?

Thursdays – how I've come to hate them!

This semester, that day is my busiest, with 3 classes, back to back (including a 2-hour lunch break between the second and third set). In spite of having requested no early classes because of my anticipated late night tutoring sessions online - what I had hoped would be my nest egg to fund the next step in my vagabond adventure, with the possibility of it turning into my sole means of support - I have early classes every single morning.

Come Thursdays, I am already through the ringer, what with having to get up early all week, something that is definitely not suited to my circadean clock.

And now, there are night and weekend classes! I knew to expect them sometime this semester because we had a meeting to kick off the Double Majors program our school has embraced just this year. Until now, David, one of the better teachers here, has spearheaded the extracurricular classes but he is now overwhelmed: his regular course load plus assisting graduating students with their theses.

The first night class, last week Tuesday, wasn't so bad, even though I wrapped my last regularly scheduled class of that day at 5:15 PM and had to be back to teach at 6:30, until 9PM. Getting up Wednesday morning for 2 back-to-back classes was a struggle, but all in all, it was not a bad experience.

And then, the night classes suddenly and mysteriously changed to Thursdays. And the afternoon class schedule changed too: sessions now start at 2PM instead of 1:45.

And I had promised to help tutor a former student with a speech she was to give in a few days' time.


Up at 6:20AM for some quiet time before the day's madness starts. Breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich, is included. And coffee. A BIG mug of coffee.

8:10AM – first class.

10:10AM – second class.

11:50AM – break for lunch. And I was hungry!

12:10PM – no gas to cook with! In spite of changing the meter's batteries, I couldn't get any flow. I resorted to heating a bratwurst in the microwave and ladling out a portion of potato salad that I had prepared last weekend in anticipation of this most hectic week.

12:30PM – just as I am preparing my plate, the phone rings. Long-graduated student and dear adopted daughter Vanessa was paying a surprise visit with her boyfriend! The call was not to notify me of a later visit; she and he were outside my door right now!

I wonder if the Chinese will ever learn that surprise visits are really rather rude?

We had a great visit, sadly cut short by my need to be back to teaching and by their need to catch their train back to Hangzhou. The downside is that I had no time for food. I offered my guests to share my lunch but they declined, and it would have been rude to eat in front of them.    

3:35PM – end of last class. The 7AM peanut butter sandwich long digested, I was dizzy and shaking from hunger. I jumped on my bike and steered towards home only to be accosted by Martina, the student I'd pledged to help that afternoon (before I knew the night class had been moved to Thursday).

I mumbled an excuse about not having had any lunch and rode home to wolf down a few bites of potato salad. The bratwurst was wasted: dried out and hard.

4:00PM – back at Teaching Building 3, room 106 to coach Martina with her speech.

5:00PM – wrapped up tutoring; rushed home for dinner. Fortunately there was gas to cook with. Grilled a couple of Brats and had more potato salad.

6:30PM – back in Teaching Building 3, this time on the 4th floor, for my night class. (Why all of the night classes seem to be held on the 4th floor is also a mystery but at least I am getting some after-dinner exercise by climbing all of those stairs.)

No one had told me where this group was, study-wise. The last night class I taught, the students were on unit 5 of the book I was provided; this group was on unit 4. I was completely unprepared. Still, we muddled through, even though I was visibly lagging during the last hour.

9:00PM – finally back home! Finally can take off my boots, change out of my jeans and remove supportive undergarments – although, after being in them for more than 14 hours straight, I can honestly tell you that they weren't all that supportive at that point; more like chafing.

Is fourteen hours in class a teaching record, or do I just feel like it should be?

Even when I was earning $1K a week, I didn't work this hard, in part because there are labor laws in other countries that prohibit working more than ten hours a day (with some exceptions, of course).

I find it ironic that, the first years I was here I begged the school to make more use of me. Now that I am fed up with being here, with my eye on what's next (What's Next is a good question...), I am now being made such hefty use of that I have no time to eat and I drag myself to bed at night.

I guess what Jonathan (Vanessa's boyfriend) said is true: the more adept you are, the more work you get saddled with. At the end of his tenure at the language training school he worked/met Vanessa at, he had been promoted to Teacher Supervisor and was putting in 14 and 16 hour days that included recruiting students and new teachers, as well as teaching as regular course load and covering for absent teachers. He finally quit, after being run completely into the ground.

That rule seems to be true everywhere. I too have witnessed better workers getting more assignments, simply because indolent workers can't be counted on. Which makes me wonder once again: what will this school do when they have no foreign teacher to overburden?    

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Things I Wish I could Take With Me When I Leave

The wardrobe is cleared and most of the winter clothes have been washed and packed. Kitchen stuff has been sorted and what I am taking has been set aside. The geegaws, knick-knacks, tchotchkes... all have their reserved space. All that remains is for my departure date to get here, and then I'm gone and my few selected things are going with me on the plane. Because shipping anything from China has become an exercise in frustration (see A Logistical Nightmare entry, posted in January of this year).

All that's left is to enjoy the last few sights, sounds and smells (good ones, not bad ones) that Wuhan has to offer. During my forays into town, now fewer than ever, I find myself anticipating missing things that are not so ubiquitous in the west.

Cantaloupe flavored gum:  Sure, you can buy Trident or Dentyne brand melon gum from Amazon, but can you find it on the grocer's shelf? Will it taste the same as the one I current am chomping on? I've gotten hooked on this tangy treat that has a kick of spearmint, and it does not stick to my teeth. Wonder if the other types have the same kick and non-stick quality.

Re Gan Mian: True, I've scaled back on eating at food vendor stalls but I can never say no to a heaping bowl of hot dry noodles, Wuhan's signature dish. While you can buy 'noodle packs' on Amazon (and probably in grocery stores, at least Asian food stores), they do not taste nearly as good as those from a food cart (Amazon sells the same brand available here, and I've tried them: they are not good). However, I know I can buy that fragrant and flavorful sesame paste and the correct type of noodles from Asian grocery stores, so I just might try to make it myself... if possible.

Maverick bacon: Unbeknownst to me till now, there is a music group called Maverick Bacon, but they are not who I am referring to as I sing the praises of a thick-slab breakfast meat: a joy to the senses. I have been buying it from Metro in 2-kilo packages almost as long as I've been here. Not that I'm obsessive; I did try other breakfast meats but this bacon is supreme! And now I have to give it up.   

Over-the-counter medicines – specifically antibiotics: by no means am I devaluing physicians, their education or their services. However, when you get to a certain age, you tend to know your body pretty well and, should you ail, you probably know exactly what you need to take to fix it, especially if it is a recurring condition.

For example: if you are prone to urinary tract infections, you would remember what medication and dosage the doc recommended the first time you were stricken, and could go to the pharmacy for another round (not a refill of an authorized prescription). If you've not been to the doc but know what a urinary tract infection feels like, a simple Internet check reveals what 'family' of antibiotics you need. Head to the local pharmacy and Presto! You have that infection whipped! 

Of course, I ponder this as a person without a criminal bone in her body. Seeing as nefarious people can manage to make illegal, deadly street drugs from medicines that are/were available over the counter (and also from Sharpie pens), who knows what they would do if antibiotics were sold rather than dispensed. And, I emphatically believe that some drugs need to stay behind the counter and only get dispensed with a prescription. But not antibiotics; surely not!

Farmer's Markets: From early morning until 8:00PM, seven days a week – except for the hallowed Chinese New Year celebration, local farmers hawk their wares. All over the city, every neighborhood provided for, one can head to the nong mao shi chang (农贸市场 – literally 'farmer's market') for fresh produce. My neighbors sometimes go twice daily for all manner of fresh: eggs, veggies, meat and fish. Some stalls within the arena offer condiments, cooking sauces and rice. One thing you will not find at the veg market is fruit: for that, any of the streetcorner vendors will do, and there could be more than one vendor on any street corner, all shouting their products' praises and urging you to trade with them.

I know there are farmer's markets in the west, but are they the same type of raucous outlet of produce so fresh the dirt on them is still moist that one can visit every day? Sadly, no.  

Alipay: in spite of the limits this system puts on me because I am not a Chinese national, I still rave about the ease and convenience of this electronic wallet. Online shopping is done by tapping a single button. The list of conveniences this app affords is ever-growing, from food delivery to clothes purchases. Order a chauffeured car (using the Didi app, China's Uber sytem)! Send money to family! Top off your mass transit card and your phone minutes, pay your utilities and buy plane tickets: all from one convenient system.

And what is especially bruising is that I have no idea how I will manage my money once I am gone. Considering I will most likely be in transit for the next 9 months and vagabonding for the next 5 years, it wouldn't make sense to open a physical bank account, so I have to investigate other ways to manage and legitimize my funds, hopefully online.

Mobike, Ofo and Hello Bike!: I know that Germany has a bike-sharing system but I don't know if there is such a program anywhere in the states, let alone where I plan to be. Although I've not yet officially tried renting any of China's bikes, I have downloaded all of the apps (because they were free and I was curious). I've ridden a Mobike, and I am excited to try an Ofo and a Hello Bike! because the seats are adjustable (Mobike seats are not).
Timed street lights: I've gotten so used to a timer next to the stop lights that indicates how long one must stay stopped (or how long the light will stay green) that, when I head west, I actually miss them. Chinese traffic nightmares aside, those timers are a wonder of civil planning. How often have you wished, when you're stuck at a red light, that the light would just hurry up and change? With these timers, you know exactly when they will. There are similar indicators for pedestrians.

Now, if we could only get Chinese drivers to reflect on and appreciate the forethought put into their driving amenities... 

Dancing women: after all the fuss I've made lately over the cacophony of this community's dancers (and the ones next door), you'd think that their pastime would be something I would be delighted to leave behind. In fact, I quite admire the idea of neighborhoods gathering to dance in the evening. When I think back to how quiet it was in other enclaves I've dwelt at, and how I never knew any of the other residents; on how sad it seems to me that people rush home, lock their doors and seldom mingle with their neighbors, nightly dancing takes on a whole new significance.

I still wish these women would not dance every night, but who am I to disparage their gathering and enjoying themselves? 

My New Job Nightmare

My last post talked all about this new job I've landed: online teaching. In spite of all the problems communicating with this company and coordinating schedules to arrange a teaching demonstration, problems that have gone on for months, I chose to accept their offer of a position, even though I worry that if they can't get their act together enough to hire teachers, who's to say they would manage to pay me correctly and on time?

And, because the MIT campus was on spring break and couldn't send me a contract at the time the Chinese contingent decided to hire me, I was afforded a bit of time to think about my options (they aren't good). And then, because of an email they sent after spring break was over, stating that their software was not up to snuff and I should expect a contract in the next few days, my misgivings grew. And then, when I finally received the contract and noticed a glaring discrepancy (and a few spelling errors), I got really leery of this program and company.

Specifically, the contract states that online teachers must fill out a tax form I-9 in case the law changes and independent contractors, of which I would be one, are considered employees from whom the company has to withhold taxes. A couple of paragraphs further down, it states that Independent contractors can never expect to be considered employees, will never receive benefits, insurance or incentives.

Clearly, somebody did not proofread this contract. And it makes me wonder about all of the independent contractors they currently have on staff. Could it be true that I am the only person who has noticed this contradiction?

I sent the support staff an email pointing out the contradiction in the contract. I pointed out the possible harm to the company – in the form of lawsuits that could result, and then made suggestions on how they could reword their contract to eliminate the discrepancy.

The support staff responded 2 days later: “Thanks for your letter. Any questions about the contract should be sent to ____.”

At least, they thanked me. Makes me wonder, though: why didn't they forward my email to the pertinent person? 

So, I forwarded it to the person they specified, and then waited 2 days. By now, that niggling feeling that this would not be a good gig has grown into major alarm bells and, on the second day after forwarding the email and not getting any response, I sent them another email, declining the position altogether.

Even though I need a job, I am not about to contractually bind myself to a company that, by all appearances does not have it all together and drafted their legal documents on (what seems like) an Internet document mill, with no actual legal input or certification (or proofreading). 

Three days later, I got an email from the person I was directed to about contract deficiencies: “If you have trouble downloading the contract, please open the attached link.”

I am now utterly confounded. Did he misunderstand my email? Did he not read my email? Is a contract deficiency meaningless to him in his avid search for teachers?
Does he expect me to sign a deficient contract???

And now I am worried that they will continue to email me, demanding that I sign a contract that most likely would withstand scrutiny – and certainly does nothing to protect me, and no matter what qualms I have about said contract, they will not be addressed.

And did he overlook my email declining the position?

Yes, I know I need a job, and I suppose it could be considered good/flattering that they are pursuing me with such ardor, but... doesn't that, in itself, make a statement?  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

My New Job

I've always told my kids that they should never quit a job unless they have one to go to. As I counsel them, so I hold myself: leaving this gig in less than three months means I have to secure something before I board the plane out of here.

Actually, I've been in the market for a new job since last December, and the growing trend of online education seems promising. Curmudgeon that I am becoming, I probably wouldn't mind not having to step into a classroom (or office or other workspace) in order to get paid. In fact, I've long been thinking of transitioning completely to an online persona in order to suit my desire to vagabond.

I have to wonder: am I becoming curmudgeonly because of the way things are here, or have I secretly been a curmudgeon all along, only now permitting that aspect of myself to emerge because it is more forgivable to be a crabby old woman than a crabby young woman?

I guess we'll see, when I leave here: will I still be ill-humored?

Quite frankly, the best and widest variety of teaching jobs, online or in a classroom, is in China. However, seeing as I cannot physically be here (and, at this point no longer want to be here), teaching Chinese students online will mean that I will have to adjust my schedule to Beijing time no matter where in the world I am. Online teaching hours are generally from 6 to 9PM.

Some places wouldn't be too bad, such as America's east coast, which is only twelve to thirteen hours behind China, depending on daylight saving time. However, at least for a time, I anticipate being on America's west coast, which means that I will have to be up and enthused at around 2AM. That's something to look forward to.


But I need a job. And, let's face it: jobs don't get easier to come by as you get older (I think I already mentioned that in a past entry). And here's another factor that might cause me problems on the job market: I am not the most highly educated person in the world, and the sad truth is that, it doesn't matter how talented, experienced and capable you are. If you don't have the right degree listed on your resume, you won't even be considered for a position.

And so you can imagine how giddy with relief I was when I nailed my online interview last December, with an upstarting company out of MIT – yes, that would be Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who are coordinating native English speakers for Chinese students. And then came trouble.

Apparently, the company embraces blue polo shirts as a uniform of sorts. I am to make a video and post a profile picture, wearing such a shirt. Furthermore, I should be so-clad when demonstrating my teaching skills online, prior to signing a contract. The problem is that my wardrobe is seriously lacking in blue shirts because blue is not my color. I am not going to refuse a job simply because the uniform is blue, so the hunt was on for a blue polo shirt.

Being much bigger than most Chinese, finding any type of clothing to fit me is a challenge, never mind a blue polo shirt in the middle of winter. It took me until March to find a suitable shirt, and that was right around the time the company emailed me: I hadn't scheduled my teaching demo yet (a necessary step prior to actual hire). What is the delay?

Communication seems to be lacking in this company (oh, the irony of an online company failing to communicate!). I had been keeping my recruiter up to date on my blue shirt search but she apparently hadn't informed the manager, who was asking me why I hadn't held my demo class. Upon hearing my shirt dilemma, he assured me I could demo without a blue shirt, and so I scheduled my mock class posthaste.

And failed it.

I did make the disclaimer at the outset of the venture that I could not view the training videos, as they are on YouTube, which is inaccessible here. When I had pointed that out to my recruiter (in the states), she forwarded my concern to the Chinese contingent, who made the videos available to me on their cloud storage. Baidu (pronounded 'by-do'), China's answer to Google, demanded that I download their cloud player in order to watch the videos. I choose to not download anything from Baidu as it is so intrusive: there is not so much as a popup blocker. Were I to download anything, I would be assailed with constant popups.

And who knows what else Baidu would install on my computer.

I should tell you that we went back and forth on the demo class scheduling. In all, I think we scheduled and rescheduled five times over the period of one month before we finally synced our calendars. After all of that effort, it was disappointing to have 'failed'. The evaluator assessed me at forty-seven points out of a possible sixty, and sent me a critique of my performance. He did note that I was not able to watch the training videos and that most likely impacted my score.

But I need a job!

Fortunately, the company invited me to try again. We back and forth'ed again, this time four reschedules, before getting together. And this time, it was a different evaluator. She sneezed, sniffed and coughed throughout my demo, so much so that I interrupted my 'show' to ask if she was OK. She averred it was only allergies but, ten minutes into my spiel, she ended the mock class by asking me to reschedule. The next day she sent me the evaluation form from my first mock class, with the exact same ratings and critiques, albeit with the date changed to reflect my latest effort.

By now I'd had enough of this monkey outfit. Sure, I need a job but if they can't get it together for a simple teaching demo, how could I be assured they would even pay me on time and correctly? I started combing the internet for other job possibilities that very night.

The next morning, bleary-eyed from having job searched past midnight, I logged into my email and saw: “So sorry... We are a start-up company... I was happy to let the software do the work... letting qualified teachers such as you slip through the cracks... changed assessment parameters to include scores between 40 and 60... If you'd still like the job...”

I will be in Oregon in 3 months, and essentially in transit for the next 6 to 9 months. No matter where I hang my hat for that time, I will have to be up at 1AM and blasting enthusiam to small Chinese children on the other side of the world. Whether I stay at my son's house or find a roommate arrangement, my anticipated solution to being transient, I will be bothering somebody in the middle of the night.

There are other jobs. Not necessarily teaching jobs, which I feel I am a bit burned out on. Jobs like translating and proofreading and editing of journals: things I've been doing, here and there, since I've been here. In fact, some of my edited work has been published in trade papers. Why not explore that?

But I need a job, and they are offering me a job. Why not take it and see how it works out?