Epistle 14 of Leon's China Chronicles


*****Odin's Day, April 21, 2004*****

Last night, between the hours of 8 and 9 pm, I saw a very interesting phenomenon in the sky.


I love to look into the Inner Mongolian sky at night, because it is so clear, and I've never seen so many stars in my life.  Last night, sometime between 8 and 9pm, I went out for a smoke, and in the western sky, I saw a very, very, very bright star.  I had seen a very bright star in the western sky for the past few days, and at first I thought that it was the same.  But, then, I continued looking at it, because something unconsciously told me that it was different.  After looking for a minute, it became very clear that it was too bright to be a star.  In fact, it was too bright to be a planet, even.

I kept my eye on it.  I was intrigued.  I thought it might be a UFO ('cause I've seen UFOs before).  Then, it became brighter.  I thought maybe it is an airplane (although it was brighter than any airplane I'd ever seen at night).  I watched it carefully to see if it was moving.  It seemed to be slightly bobbing and wavering, but not moving as an airplane would... linearly.  It got brighter.  It seemed to be coming right at me.  I thought, "Oh, NO!  It's an asteriod!  And it is heading straight for me.  This is the end.  It's all over.  Game over.  I'm going to die.  It's 'Deep Impact'!*"

* ["Deep Impact" was the title of a movie about a comet colliding with Earth, 1998].

My son started crying.  I had to go in and put him to sleep.  After about thirty minutes, I went outside again and it was gone.  I was relieved, but surprised.  I thought maybe the asteroid burt up in the Earth's atmosphere.  I was pissed off, because I would have liked to have seen it burn up.

Then, this evening, I went out again for a smoke around 8pm, and there it was again!

Now, I'm convinced it's a planet [probably Mars].  And last night it must have sunk down below the horizon, out of view.  And the apparent bobbing and wavering was the refraction of the light as it shined through the thinner clouds.


*****Thor's Day, April 22, 2004*****


It is said (here) that the wind comes only twice a year..... but that each time it comes, it last for six months.  This is true.  It is a windy steppe upon which we live here in Inner Mongolia.  Wind is a constant.  It varies in intensity and direction.  I've mentioned that before in previous epistles.  Today the wind comes from the northwest.  Therefore, it is cold AND dusty.  This is perhaps the worst of all... cold AND dusty.  People generally stay indoors in this kind of weather, for obvious reasons, but I'm told that no matter how bad it may get, there is not "day off" of school.  ...not that it is really bad now, but I've heard tale of it getting really really bad, but only in April or May.

Winter is gone, and it wasn't as bad as I expected, because there is no humidity here.  So, the cold is more bearable, than say, Korea's cold.  In Korea, where the humidity is high, the water particles in the air freeze and become microscopic icicles that penetrate one's clothing.  If it is windy during such weather, it feels like microscopic needles penetrating the exposed skin.  It's not like that here.  It's cold, but bearable [except when it is extremely windy].


Tomorrow, mid term exams commence.  They will last for four days.  Then, there will be a track and field meet.  Then, there will be an art exihibition (including dancing, singing, and displays of the visual arts).  Then, I don't know what will happen on the last two days of this month.

May 1 ("May Day") is Labor Day (seems to be an internation thing, 'cause they celebrate it in Korea too).  But, in America, Labor Day is the first Monday in September.

The thing is, in Korea, teachers and other so-called "professionals", like doctors, lawyers, dentists, and "white collar" government officials, are not considered laborers.  So, they don't get the day off.  Here in China, teachers DO get the day off.

I've been told that there might be more than one day off for "May Day", but that is just an un-confirmed rumor that has yet to be substantiated.  My colleagues say that they have not been notified yet, if there will be more than one day off or not.  This is funny to me.

In the West, the entire academic schedule is set before the school year begins.  Here, it seems that they make it up as they go along.  (And, I'm not just writing about "May Day").

I don't get it.  I'm often not told about exams or other events, that conflict with my normal teaching schedule until the day of, or if I'm lucky, the day before.  I'm given hints of days off for upcoming events long before they happen, but everyone keeps telling different dates of said events.  This drives me crazy.  But, only a little crazy, because a day off is a day off, and I get paid regardless, so it's no biggie to me.

Like I wasn't expecting to be teaching this week, because of mid-terms, but it turns out that midterms will occur Friday (tomorrow), Saturday, Sunday, and Monday.  This sucks, because Friday is my favorite day, and I didn't get to teach my last two classes last Friday due to some English speaking competition of Grade 11 students, at which I had to play "judge".  I don't like doing such things when the levels are so close, but in that case, there was a definite winner, and the choice was clear.

But the point of all this rambling is that the students all week have NOT been in the mood to study.  They have "spring fever".  Plus the warm weather makes them sleepy.

I frankly do NOT understand the mentality, because when I was in high school, I was never ready for the exam and I was taking advantage of every opportunity to "cram" for any exam, to insure the highest score possible.  These students, for the most part, have relented to their inevitable fate.  They figure like this:  "It's too late to study now.  Either I know it or I don't.  I'll take what I can get."

Now, I ask you expats who read this... hypothetically of course: "If you had to take a foreign language, and that foreign language was not only part of your mid-term and final exams, but ALSO a part of the college entrance exam, would you not want to take advantage of a FREE, ungraded, tutorial from a native speaker of that particular language?"  "Would you not want to 'pick the brain' of the native speaker?"

I have bent over backwards to help these students.  I have chosen one of the best English communicators from each class and designated that student to be my permanent translator.  If students have questions about English, but lack the linguistic skills to utter the questions to me, they can go through my translator.  Yet, only one class has taken advantage of the translator services being provided.  In fact, the closer the date of the exam, the more apathetic the students seem to become.  What the....?  I don't understand the mentality.  I just don't get it.  In the West, we would be very anxious and ready to ask a hundred questions in order to gain every advantage for the upcoming exam.

I know in Korea, grades (AKA "marks") are not important for college entrance.  Only the college entrance exam is of any importance; yet, I'm told that in China, high school marks ARE important for college entrance.

I give the students a chance to "pick my brain" on anticipated problems on the exam.  If I'm lucky, I'll get one student in a class (this week) who'll ask any questions.  [In other weeks, I have had at least half of my classess asking a ton of questions].

So, I ask the students, "Are you ready for the exam?"  They all shout, "NO!"  "Then, why don't you ask and questions?" I ask.  All I get is a few snickers.

I just don't get it.



Because I'm a nice guy, and I like my employer very much, I've decided to help my employer find replacement teachers.  Yes, I'm going to leave at the end of my contract.  It is undetermined where I will go next, but I've decided to leave because my son will start his formal education soon and he needs to learn English (and go to an accredited international school).

So, I put some ads on the web for "couple" teachers.  The administration was clear about the qualifications for the job.  They are:

1.  Native Speakers of Enlgish, from one of the following countries:  UK, US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand.  Couple preferred.

2.  Graduates of a university of the same country.  Major should be English, Education, or related field.

3.  TESL/TEFL certificate a plus.

4.  3 years classroom teaching experience. (negotiable)

5.  Able to commit for 1-3 years.  (min. 1 year)

I get lots of people applying who don't have the qualifications (but that's not new, I do it sometimes, too).

So, I got an application from a couple, where the husband is from Quebec, Canada, and the wife is from Hungary.  I write back and in my letter I convey the unlikelihood of their being hired, because the wife is not a native of one of the countries stipulated.

I get a thoroughly shocking letter in reply, telling me that my letter was very impolite and that I need to take some etiquette lessons.

All right now.  I ask you:  "Where is the impoliteness?"

I don't understand.

And even if my letter was impolite, which it wasn't, but even if it was, you don't write back and criticize the human resource agent of the school where you are applying for a job.  There's a serious lacking of socio-pragmatics there.  I mean there was still a chance of them being hired.  I didn't say that they wouldn't be hired.  I merely said that it was "unlikely".

They also made allusions to me being unqualified because of my slavic surname!  Now if that isn't rude, then nothing is.  I may have a slavic surname, but I was born and raised in America, so that was totally uncalled for.

I just had to write and get that off my chest, because it has been bothering me for the past couple days.

They can go kiss my you-know-what, because I'm not the one who needs the job, they do!

I mean REALLY!  Where do they get the gall?


That reminds me of another incident, where roles were reversed, but again I was the victim.

I was applying for a job at a university in Korea.  The human resource agent was a native English speaker.  The university was far from the city where I was living at the time, which was Seoul, but an interview was wanted.  He wrote me in an email that he was coming to Seoul for a vacation and would like to interview me while he was there.  He suggested I chose a hotel lobby where we could meet.

I wrote back and politely offered the hospitality of my home for the place of the interview.  My home was centrally located, right downtown Seoul.  I said that my wife would cook him a meal, if he wanted.  I offered my services as tour guide around the town after the interview.  I was going all out to impress my prospective employer.

He wrote back a very terse letter, in an apparently agitated tone.  He wrote that he didn't want to come to my home, nor did he ask for a meal or a tour guide and that the interview was cancelled due to my inability to read plain English.

Okay, now.  What the hell?  I was literally beside myself wondering where in the world that came from.  What an asshole!!!  I mean when someone offers hospitality, like that which I was offering, you don't spit in the face of your benefactor(s) and insult them.  You can politely refuse, but what the hell is up with the insults?  I mean where do these people get off?

I don't know.  I just don't get it.  How can people be so blantantly insensitive?  Maybe I'm too nice.  Maybe that's my problem.  I don't know.  I'm always putting myself in the shoes of others and trying to treat them as I would like to be treated.  Evidently, the so-called "golden rule" does't always work.


*****Odin's Day, May 5, 2004*****

Okay.  I've got some catching up to do.

May 1 (commonly called "May Day") is seemingly an international "Labor Day".  Well, all I know for sure is that it's a holiday in many many countries, including Korea and China.  Here, May Day appears to be the biggest shopping day of the year (akin to the day after Thanksgiving in America).  I mean everyone (who wasn't a merchant) was out shopping.  It was mass hysteria!  I've NEVER seen so many people out and about in Tongliao before May Day came.

Today is Children's Day in Korea.  China's Children's Day is June 1st.

Anyways, I've got the whole week off (as do all other teachers and students, except 12th graders, who have to study for the upcoming college entrance exam).  The 12th graders (and their teachers) only got one day off: May Day).



It's been getting warmer recently, and the weather has been delightful, up until today.. Today, there are sand storms and it is overcast and sprinkling off and on.  What a combination!  Overcast and sand storms!  There's no better place in the world to teach one's child the meaning of the word "windy".

I didn't want to go out today, but we had to eat.  We had to go out to eat, 'cause there's no food in the apartment.  It was horrid.  The wind was so strong that all the junipers were at a 45 degree angle to the ground.  The wind blew my hat off, and I had to chase it for half a block.

I heard that the Koreans and Japanese have been complaining for years about the "Yellow Sand" storms that apparently reach all the way to Japan (coming clear from the Gobi Dessert, across the dusty steppes of Outer and Inner Mongolia).  I also heard that some Japanese came here to plant trees, and realized that it was too big of a project and gave up.  I mean what do they think they can do... plant and irrigate an entire desert and an entire plain?  Don't they think that the Chinese and Mongolians would have done something by now if it were possible to do anything?  Anyways, I thought it was funny.  I mean funny that someone would try to "take on" mother nature, not funny that there are sand storms.  I don't like the sand storms any more or less than anyone else.



My son just turned four a couple weeks ago.  He is funny.  Like I mentioned before, he is pretty much potty-trained now.  But, what I do is try to reinforce this behavior through reverse psychology.  Every time my son says that he has to "go", I say, "No."  He says, "Pleeeease."  I say, "No."  He says, "PLEEEEASE!"  I say, "Oookay." (as if he is causing me great inconvenience, which he is, 'cause I have to help him "go", (but I secretly know that cleaning up his messy diapers is more of an inconvenience).  Then, he gets all excited, because Dad has finally relented to "Let him go to the potty."  I'm treating it as a privilege, not a right.  He therefore, appreciates his ability to go on the potty a lot more.

Also, when he gets on the pot, he is so funny.  After squeezing out each log, he stands up and shouts, "Look!  I did poo poo!  Look!"  And, of course I give lavish praise.  And if I neglect to give praise, my son prompts me to give him praise, like this, "Good job, huh?"

And writing of praise, each time I take a leak or a dump, my son gives me lavish praise.  "Good job, Daddy!" he says.

He is funny in other ways, too.  Like with gum.  Ever since he had his first piece of gum, he has never swallowed it (except by accident).  He just chews all the flavor out and then spits out the gum in the trash.  (Of course I had to train him to spit it out in the trash, as opposed to on the floor).



But, my son gets confused, living in China, because in China the floor/ground is everyone's waste bin/ trash can.  I don't mean that people indiscriminately litter wherever they darn well please.  They generally try to put the trash in corners, under trees, or in pot holes.

One thing I don't like about Korea and China is the men hawk loogies wherever they damn well please, even on restaurant floors, dining room floors, sidewalks, staircases, patios, squares/plazas, wherever.

Now, don't get me wrong... it's not that ALL Koreans nor is it that ALL Chinese do this disgusting behavior, and you won't find it happening in the more luxurious restaurants, and hardly ever by the gentry of society.  Can you imagine the president of Korea or Chairperson of China giving a speech and stopping to hawk a loogie on the stage.  No... It just wouldn't happen.

It appears to be the less-educated, lower socio-economic class of society, who perform such disgusting behavior.  That does not lessen the degree of disgust that I have for the behavior.  I mean when I was living in Korea, I have walked up a staircase and found a huge, disgusting loogie right there on the stair in front of me, or walking on the sidewalk in winter and seeing frozen loogies all over the place (and that was Seoul, not some rural region).

I recently read a blog site, where the blog-writer complained about men who hawk loogies while urinating in the restroom.  While I agree that the comode would be a better place than the urinal, I think it is better than hawking loogies on the floor, staircase, or sidewalk.  I mean at least do it in the street, not the sidewalk where people have to walk.

The difference between Korea and China, is I've only twice seen women hawk loogies in my eight-year term in Korea, but here in rural China, I've seen lots of women hawk loogies (but again, not your upper-class ladies).  I'd like to go to their home and hawk a loogie on their kitchen floor and see how they like it.  Then again, they probably hawk loogies on their own kitchen floors and make their wives clean it up.  You see, in China, especially this region, people do not have carpet.  The floors are either brick or tile, or brick covered with a think layer of concrete.  And everyone, except my son and I, wear their shoes in their homes.  My son and I hate to wear shoes.  So, I've bought some of that rubber-flooring stuff and laid it all over the apartment.  It also insulates the apartment from the cold floor.

You'd never see a Korean spitting on his/her floor, because the floors are heated and people do not wear shoes in their homes.



It is "Mother's Day" or "Mothers' Day"?  I don't know, but the latter seems more appropriate.

Anyways, Mothers' Day is coming soon, and it appears that both Chinese Mothers' Day and American Mothers' Day fall on the same day (as do both Fathers' Day).

Mom, if you read this:  "Happy Mothers' Day!"

Mee-sook, if you can see this, wherever you are:  Happy Mothers'Day!



The air here is SO arid, and the wind is a dry, often dusty wind that chapps the skin almost immediately.  So, to avoid chapped skin and lips, I keep a healthy supply of skin lotion and chapstick in the apartment.  My son has to keep at least one chapstick on his person at all times.  (That's not because I make him do it, but rather because he insists upon it).  He can't even sleep without his chapstick.  Of course it gets lost in the blankets when he sleeps and when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he starts to cry.  So, I say, "What's the matter, buddy?"  And, he asks, "Where's the chapstick?"  We find the chapstick and he goes right back to sleep.

The thing that I don't understand about these people here is they don't use either chapstick or lotion.  None of them!  And you can see their chapped skin on their faces and hands.  I don't understand it.  It's not like there's a lack of lotion, and even if there was, you could use vegetable oil.  The other day, I saw a little girl, who's face had been so chapped that there were abrations all over her cheeks and scabs on the abrations.  You can see kids with red cheeks all over the place.  My son never gets red cheeks, because I put baby oil on his face every day.  I love baby oil.  I use it myself.  It's great!

I don't know what the deal is with these people refusing to use skin lotion and/or oil on their skin.  I really don't.  I want to go out and buy a hundred bottles of lotion and go start handing them out to people I see who appear to need it most.

The thing about Chinese chapstick (or lip balm) is that it is so poorly constructed, and it falls apart so easily, so I have to spend a lot of money replacing my son's chapstick nearly every day.  It really pisses me off.



China's goods are cheap, but the quality SUCKS!  I mean I just bought a new automated tricycle for my son, and after only four days of use, the motor doesn't work any more.  I'm infuriated!  I mean a stick of lip balm (chapstick) only costs me about 20 cents (US), but the automated tricycle cost me about 40 bucks (US) and in China that's A LOT OF MONEY!  And it's not like there is any warrantee.  Of course, if there is, I cannot read it, because it's all written in Chinese!

If China wants to increase it's international trade, it is going to have to increase the quality of its goods.  I mean SERIOUSLY!



China is rapidly becoming a "market economy"!  When I first read it on the front page of the China Daily, I didn't recognize the significance of the statement.  I didn't equate "market economy" with "capitalism", but I now realize that the two are one in the same!  China is shedding it's communistist, socialistic ideals in favor of capitalism.  Wow!  Isn't that something!  I mean I was right.  My observations of the people living here in China, showed me that communism was on the way out.  Makes me wonder what "The Party" thinks about this.  And, is the "The Party" backing this trend in Chinese economics?  Here is an excerpt from the China Daily, dated April 16, 2004:

"New Zealand has announced it will regard China as a market economy, a breakthrough statement which paves the way for the nation to earn the international trading status it deserves.

A New Zealand Government statement said China had already developed a strong and vibrant private sector."

"Besides New Zealand, Australia has promised to grant China market economy status and the European Union (EU) is also considering the request, according to Wang Hejun, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Fair Trade for Import and Export under the Ministry of Commerce."




It is finally starting to get what I would call, "warm".  This is possibly due to the fact that we haven't had wind for a few days.


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