Monday, January 28, 2008


After a couple of days in Bangkok, where one out of every six people in Thailand live, I was ready to escape the crowds and the pollution. I caught a cab to the bus station and bought a ticket for Ayutthaya, about a two-hour ride to the north.

Ayutthaya is one of the ancient capitals of Thailand and was the seat of the government from about 1350 to 1767, when it was destroyed by an invading army from neighboring Burma and the capital moved south to Bangkok. At that time, Ayutthaya was one of the largest cities in the world with over a million inhabitants. Today, the historic district has over thirty temples sitting mostly untouched since then in various stages of ruin.

In stark contrast to Bangkok, the streets of the old city were mostly empty (though not completely as there seems to be a problem with stray dogs) and quiet. Walking around the deserted temple grounds with my camera was a nice change of pace. The skies were clear and blue, the air fresh, the other tourists few and far in between.

Among the numerous temples (most with a standard entrance fee of 30 baht) I took in a good taste of the mixture of Thai and Khmer style architecture. Two of the prominent elements at most of the temples are the Chedi, which are Thai-style Buddhist stupas, and the thicker, rounded Prang. The pictures at the top and bottom of this post show both, with the smaller chedi, surrounding a central prang. One of the most famous sites in Ayutthaya, can be found at Wat Mahathat, where a sandstone carving of a Buddha was gradually engulfed by a nearby tree to the point where now only the face remains, sticking out from the gnarled roots. Pictures can be seen in my webshots album from Ayutthaya.

On my second day in Ayutthaya, I was taking a shortcut through a small, out of the way temple when I randomly ran into Kevin Mills, one of the Maryknoll teachers in north China. It was a nice surprise to see a familiar face so far off the beaten path. We ended up spending the afternoon exploring more of the city and had dinner together, catching up on China stories, before parting ways.

Ayutthaya was a nice relaxing break from Bangkok and definitely gets my recommendation for anyone visiting Thailand with an extra day or two on their hands.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bangkok Day 2

I have found the Thai people to be very nice and friendly. Walking around on my own, I have stopped and spoken with a few of them and generally on learning that I teach English in China, they recommend I teach in Thailand in the future. It seems that the general level of English here is better though, so there may be less demand for me...

Unfortunately, as in any tourist destination, there are also a number of people also trying to make a quick buck at your expense. Sometimes it is tough to tell the genuinely friendly people wanting to practice some English from the approaching touts wanting to take you on a costly detour or to a nearby suit shop. The most common scam tends to be asking where you are going followed by telling you that that particular destination is closed for whatever reason and they'll offer to take you somewhere else instead. In the morning, Wat Pho was "closed" to foreigners and only open to Thais for "morning prayers." I was told to come back in the afternoon, but in the meantime, I could go see a different Buddha for a few extra Baht. Of course, walking to the entrance reveals that it is not closed at all... Interestingly enough, I was by the same temple in the late afternoon and told by a different tout that it was closed in the afternoons and I would have to visit the following morning, but he could take me to another site of interest. If it were up to them, I'd have never seen the temple!

After walking just a bit further down the road, I reached the entrance to Wat Pho (Wat is Thai for "temple") and purchased a ticket, checking the sign to see that the temple was open daily starting at 8 A.M., despite any nonsense you may hear otherwise. The temple is home to the world's largest reclining Buddha and at around 150 feet long, I'm sure he blows away the competition. It seems to be a recurring theme to have a world's largest ______ Buddha as your tourist draw. So far I've see the world's tallest Buddha (LeShan), world's largest sitting bronze Buddha (Hong Kong) and the world's largest reclining Buddha (Bangkok).

After walking around the rest of the temple grounds, I had a lunch of chicken with spicy basil leaves nearby that was spicy enough to clear the sinuses and then some...

Following lunch, it was time to go across the street to visit the Grand Palace, which is home to more temples and the famous "Emerald Buddha." It turns out that the Buddha is actually made of jade, but was originally mistaken for emerald when it was first discovered. Nonetheless, it is one of the more important Buddha images in Thailand.

That evening, I met with Lindsay (a fellow teacher from Zhanjiang who was in Bangkok) and some of her friends at the Conrad Hilton hotel. She knew a person who was going to be playing in the band at the bar that night, so we went to watch. It was an interesting experience... It is a five-star hotel and the bar was quite nice, the crowd provided most of the color though. Since we arrived early for happy hour specials, there were not many people there yet. Gradually middle-aged business men begin to trickle in followed by attractive Thai girls young enough to be their daughters. Prostitution operates in sort of a gray area in Thailand, not necessarily legal or acceptable, but widespread and tolerated. It was something of a surreal and strange experience being in a luxury hotel and surrounded by women for hire and farang (foreign) businessmen buying up bottles of wine for them. The band was pretty good though, covering popular English songs, which were nice to hear again after only getting bad techno music at Chinese bars and we had a good evening.

Bangkok Day 1

I touched down in Bangkok on Thursday afternoon following a two and a half hour flight from Macau.

About an hour later, I was through customs and out on my own. Needing to catch a taxi into Bangkok, I exchanged a small amount of money (at what I suspected to be a bad rate) and was only surprised later when I learned how bad the exchange was! From the airport, it was about a 40 minute taxi ride to the street where I'm staying.

I booked a room at the Green House Guest House, which caused some confusion as it turns out there are two Green Houses on the same street, no affiliation. After insisting I had a reservation at the wrong Green House, I eventually made my way down to the other end of the road to find the right location. Janet is going to have a much easier time when she gets here as I'll be able to escort her from the airport after blazing the trail...

The area where I'm staying is in the central part of Bangkok, where most of the tourist destinations are. The whole block is full of guest houses, backpackers, trinket and food vendors, bars, etc... Wikitravel referred to the area as a "backpacker's ghetto" and after arriving, I have to agree.

One of the first things I did after getting my room and dropping off my bags was to check the current RMB/Thai Baht exchange rates. They ranged from about 4.35-4.5 Baht = 1 RMB. The airport exchange had given me 3.4 baht/RMB! I thought I may have better luck at the nearby Western Union, but they were only offering 3.8baht/RMB. Everyone seemed to offer the same rates for Baht/USD (about 32/1) but for whatever reason, coming in with Chinese money it is hard to get a decent exchange. I finally found a little place that offered me 4.4 Baht/RMB and I exchanged my money there. So far, nobody has complained about counterfeit bills, so I guess it worked out fine...


I only spent a few, albeit cold hours in Macau. Air Asia, the discount airline I flew with operates flights out of Macau rather than Hong Kong since they have cheaper taxes and departure fees. So, I boarded a ferry in central Hong Kong and made the one hour trip to the neighboring S.A.R. (Special Administrative Region of China).

Macau, with a population of a bit over 500,000 is much smaller than Hong Kong. I had booked a room in a historic, i.e., run down hotel, but the location was great. Looking to escape from my bleak room, I spent a few hours walking around the city and taking pictures. Unfortunately, it was pretty cold, around 60 degrees and I had left my jacket back in Hong Kong (thinking I wouldn't need it in Bangkok).

Macau is the only location for legal gambling in China and that industry has led to it becoming a popular tourist destination. Macau recently passed Las Vegas as the world's largest gambling center. I actually was staying closer to the older Portugese section of town and not near any of the casinos, but did drive by some of them on the way to the airport, including the newly opened and massive Venetian.

One of the more interesting aspects of Macau to me, is the exchange rate racket. The official currency of Macau is the Pataca, but due to its proximity, Hong Kong dollars are also used and accepted on a one to one basis. In actuality, the Pataca is pegged at a rate slightly under the value of the Hong Kong dollar, so for each HKD you spend in Macau, you lose about 3 cents. An ingenuious plan to take advantage of the weekend crowds coming in from Hong Kong. I even saw a few places that accepted Renminbi on the 1 to 1 exchange rate, which would be even worse considering each RMB should be worth about 1.09 Patacas.

After a cold night in Macau, I was ready to board the plane (from an airport not too much larger than Tallahassee Regional) to reach Bangkok so I could thaw out a bit...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Off to Thailand

My long anticipated vacation is almost here!

I'm headed to Macau by ferry today and flying out to Bangkok from there tomorrow afternoon.

I'll be staying in Thailand for three a little over three weeks. The first week, I'll be scouting out some sites in and around Bangkok by myself and should be fully prepared to give Janet a tour by the time she arrives on February 2. After spending a few days seeing the sights together, we'll head to the south on February 5.

Once we land in Phuket, we hope to use that as a base to do some island hopping around in the Gulf of Thailand and the Malacca Strait.

I'm excited! Look for some updates and new pictures to be coming over the next few weeks.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Exam Week

Back in Zhanjiang, the school semester is probably just now wrapping up. Luckily, I got to leave a week early, but not before giving exams and grades to my students.

For my two spoken English classes, I gave oral exams. These were more or less straight forward to administer. I met with the students one-on-one and we read a dialogue together and then I asked them each a few questions. I checked for pronunciation, fluency (which I judged as ability to smoothly read the passage versus stumbling over the words) and a short question and answer session served to test their listening ability in addition to fluency (formulating thoughts in English). It was fairly easy and quick to judge what the students knew this way. Most of them did fine.

Before giving the exams, I wrote a list of 15-20 questions to rotate through with the students. Some of the questions I quickly abandoned due to a phenomena that I refer to as "Chinese hive thought." Any Star Trek fans, think of the Borg. For those of you not familiar with the reference, let me explain. What I classify as "Chinese hive thought" is the same reaction of multiple Chinese people to certain stimuli, generally a question. This is a joking classification; nobody has telepathic group thought abilities though sometimes it may seem eerily like they do.

For example, one question I asked, "Would you rather visit Beijing of Shanghai?" The answer universally emerged in my class as, "Beijing, because it is the capital of China." The question would be sort of like asking students in an American classroom if they would rather take a trip to New York or Washington D.C.? Certainly you would likely get a variety of answers and reasons why. Additionally, some choosing to visit D.C. may cite among their reasons it being the seat of our government, but usually wanting to visit specific sites (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian, etc.) would also be included. My answer from the 20 or so students randomly asked out of a class of 45, was essentially and important to note, independently, the same - "hive thought."

If one were to ask for thoughts on Chairman Mao (which I of course did not), you generally here the answer that he was "70% right and 30% wrong." The percentages seem to be consistent among different people. I've never heard a 65/45 or 50/50 ratio, it seems firmly established that his right/wrong lifetime batting average stands at 70/30. Another hive thought?

Of course, the more people you talk to, the wider variety of opinions you are likely to get. On a larger scale, "hive thought" answers break down. In the close-knit classroom, they more often tend to hold true. One reason for this might be that the Chinese class, unlike in our secondary and tertiary education system, is always together. Whereas our students in high school may have 6 different classes in the day, each with different groups of people, the Chinese class may have 6 different classes, but the students are always the same. After spending so much time together, perhaps its easier for similar opinions to emerge? Another thought may be that the Chinese education system seems to be very top-down. The teacher teaches and is right and the students learn and are generally wrong. There does not seem to be much questioning of the established norm, which could lead to groups having similar "right" answers. The "hive thought" only seems to work on certain questions and may be predictable or can come as a surprise.

That was a bit of a tangent, but as I said, I quickly abandoned certain questions after getting tired of hearing the same answer. Speaking to so many students can quickly become boring if you only hear the same story. I needed some variety to keep me interested! Switching up the questions and learning which ones worked better than others seemed to help.

My reading class proved to be a bit more of a challenge. I had to write an exam for them covering the chapters we had discussed in the textbook so far. Knowing that English is a second language for them, I told them somewhat specifically what areas of the book I was taking questions from so they would not what to study. We, of course, also had a reading comprehension passage. In addition to forewarning them on what to study, I also planned to grade the test on a curve to account for the fact that I may have poorly designed it for their level.

As it turns out, the students did not do well. My scores ranged from a minus three to a minus twenty-five (out of 40 questions) with most hovering closer to the low end of the scale. Looking at test scores and running some averages, I decided to subtract seven wrong questions from the students. This put my grading more in line with a nice bell curve with a peak somewhere in the high "C" range. I plan to spend some time going over the exam when the next semester begins. I still have a feeling that a number of the students did not adequately prepare for it.

After grading exams, I plugged the scores into my class spreadsheets and had grades prepared fairly quickly. It was the end of my first semester teaching and has been an interesting experience. There have been some classes that worked really well and definitely some other lesson plans that might be better forgotten. I hope that I was able to help many of the students practice and improve their English in the classroom, but I think perhaps the biggest learning tool has come from just being present. With Janet and myself on campus, many of the students have expressed that they have more reason to practice and try to learn English diligently. I hope that I can be effective in the classroom, but if for some reason I prove to be inspiring outside of the classroom, I'll take that as a good sign as well.

One thing is for certain, I'm sure my second semester students will be getting an English teacher with a little more experience under his belt.

Friday, January 11, 2008

A Long Week

This has been a busy week. I gave final exams and grades for all of my students, Janet left and then I've been sick for the past two days. Now that I'm starting to feel better, I'll try and get back on schedule here.

The good news is that I am finished for the semester. I guess I am officially on vacation now, though sitting here in my apartment, it doesn't quite seem like it yet. The next semester doesn't begin until February 23. My flight to Thailand doesn't leave until January 24, so I've got some time to kill. I thought about taking a train to Shanghai (18 hours) and spending some time exploring around there but as I began to hear horror stories of trying to get train tickets at semester's end, I was reminded of an all too unpleasant previous experience trying to get a train out of Beijing back in August. Deciding not to risk being stuck alone in the cold weather and missing my flight to Bangkok, I'll probably just stick around here a few days and then head to Hong Kong. I'll post some more details of my trip as I figure them out...

Now, the not-so-good news, I'm on my own. Janet, my constant companion in China, is now safely back in Orlando. It looks like I may be going out and eating dinner by myself. I do have some friends over at the Normal College, but they too are beginning to leave for their vacations. Venturing out on your own in Zhanjiang can sometimes be fun, but can also easily become overwhelming. I guess once I get tired of it, I'll pick up my bus ticket and go. The English department teachers invited me to attend a picnic on Sunday, which should be fun. They too worried that I would be lonely with Janet gone.

Tonight, I left campus for the first time since Tuesday. I've spent the better part of the past two days sleeping/huddling inside my house when not having to give exams. I caught some kind of bug Tuesday night and was more or less incapacitated on Wednesday, not getting out of bed until 5pm. I was on a liquid diet until the following evening when I heated up a can of black beans for dinner. Today, thankfully, I'm doing much better.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Reading Robin Hood in China

This semester, I've been teaching an English reading class. Its been going ok and I've tried to supplement the passages from their textbook with some outside articles on China or other things that may interest them whenever I can find them in magazines or online. Lately my outside articles have been running dry and I'm left trying to come up with some other ideas.

I was recently thinking back to my earlier years when I was learning reading in school. In particular, I thought of a time in elementary school when every class in the third grade did a month-long unit on fairy tales. It just so happened that I had been given an "alternative" version of Little Red Riding Hood at my Maryknoll orientation and saw it when cleaning a desk drawer the other day. What a good opportunity to introduce the concept of point-of-view, I thought!

I had some copies made (takes about a week fighting the bureaucratic copy machine lady here) of The Maligned Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood (小红帽 - Little Red Hat, in the Chinese translation). In class, I had the students read both versions and we discussed. Many were familiar with the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but they really enjoyed The Maligned Wolf, which told the story in a first-person narrative from the Wolf's point-of-view.

At this point, you are probably reading and wondering, "what does this have to with Robin Hood, the title of this blog post?" Stay with me, I'm getting there...

This week, we followed up on point-of-view with a heavily abridged version of Robin Hood. The consensus of the class was the Robin Hood is a noble character, after all, few things could be more noble than to steal and give to the poor. We looked at the story differently though, I asked everyone to pretend that they were either Prince John or the Sheriff of Nottingham from the story and defend their actions. The story of Robin Hood quickly changed into how the prince was merely trying to hold together a country in the absence of its king. Robin Hood became a pesky and troublesome menace to the "harmonious society" of England. As my students to frequently tell me, "every coin has two sides."

For homework, I asked the students to write a mini-sequel to Robin Hood, where the English folk hero visits China in the year 2008. I've included some of the stories below (which may make for a long read)...

Robin Hood come to China today. He is a heartful, humor, rich, hardworking man. He have a harmonious family, a beautiful wife and three lovely children. He can speak four kinds of languages: English, Japanese, Chinese and French. Robin Hood doesn't need to steal money, because steal money is violate law. He owns his company, which is a charitable organization. He contribute to poor peoples and offer many foods, clothes, breads and so on. Robin Hood often go to orphanage and visit orphans. He brings many delicious foods, toys and books to them. He also tell stories and perform magic to them sometimes. They laugh out loud and feel very happy. Robin Hood is a hero in many people's mind.
In this next version, Robin Hood has a moral awakening...
I think Robin Hood come to China will turn over a new leaf. Because China people is very kindness and very friendly and will help each others. So he feel very warmth and decide breaking a bad habit.

Today Robin Hood make a speech for China. The topic is: "Turn over a new leaf." He said,
Before, I have terrible habit, it is thief. Long, long ago, I often steal something in my country because I want to help the poor man. I think I haven't the power to help them otherwise. Until now, I found I did everything is wrong before. This way is very immoral. I want all people here correct their faults once they are aware of them. Repent and be saved.
The people can listen to Robin Hood and turn over a new leaf.
And here he changes professions!
Robin Hood come to China. He made a great effort and finally he was to be a famous clothes designer. One day, I went shopping with my friend. We passed a clothes shop. Suddenly, we saw the clothes of Robin Hood was fashionable and colorful. Robin Hood added the old style to his new clothes which was come from the style of old England. Eventually he made a great progress as the Chinese people really fond of his design. He became a famous hero again.
Here Robin Hood tests the waters with his knowledge of political science...
Robin Hood come to China. He gets warm welcome by Chinese people. And then he calls on Hu Jintao, Chinese President. They discuss how to return Taiwan. Robin Hood puts forward many acceptable tactics. These tactics are very useful for China. Chinese government carry out "one nation, two systems" so as to achieve the unity of China. Such as Hong Kong and Macau. We expect a new China next year. At that time, Robin Hood become a well known people in China.
And falls in love with a beautiful Chinese girl...
800 years ago, Robin Hood robbed the crown jewels to help the poor in England. The king was very angry and the army arrested Robin Hood.

Robin Hood escaped to China today. When Robin Hood come to China, he has no house to live, very hungry, dressed in ancient clothes. He is different from other people in China. As we know he has yellow hair, blue eyes and is very different from all the people around him. In that time, a beautiful Chinese girl appears and Robin Hood falls in love with her. They love each other in one sight. The beautiful girl teaches Robin Hood Chinese, how to use a computer, etc.

After three years, they get engaged and get much money to contribute to benevolent to help the children. Under Robin Hood's help, all the people have good life in China. Robin Hood gets married to the Chinese girl and have four children.
And my personal favorite (as it involves me)...
Robin Hood just keep walking and walking in the forest at midnight. Suddenly, he trips and tumbles down. It seems a very long time. When Robin Hood wakes up he hardly can open his eye for the intense sunlight. He can feel a lot of big object pass by him and making a loud noise. He opens his eye and is nearly frightened out of his wits as the terrible and chaotic world around him.

Robin Hood can't find King Richard. He is just shouting but no one can understand him. People around him treat him as a madman and get away from him quickly. After a long time, he calm down. Robin Hood felt upset, but nothing he could do. He just walk alone on the street with no destination.

A beautiful woman and a handsome man, Janet and Scott, go out of their school for lunch. Walking from the opposite one, they come across a strange man. Thinking for a while, Scott come to recognize this man who is his idol, Robin Hood. He tells Janet, but she laugh at him. Even though it is unbelievable, Scott still want to talk to the man.

"Excuse me, eh, Robin Hood?"
"What? You can speak English? Wow! I'm Robin Hood."

Robin Hood tells his story to Scott and Janet and they would like to find a way for Robin Hood to go back to his time period, but they fail eventually. Robin Hood lives in Scott's house and starts to get used to his life a little bit. At last, Scott and Janet decide to find a job for Robin Hood. He becomes an English teacher in Zhanjiang Finance and Trade School and likes his new job and life in China very much.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Subscribe to my Blog

Some of you may have already noticed, but I have recently made a small change to the links over on the right side of the page.

You can now click on one of them and confirm for a subscription to my blog via e-mail. Each time I update with a new post, it will then be conveniently delivered to your e-mail inbox, eliminating having to keep checking my site for updates. Of course, if your inbox is already cluttered and you'd prefer not to, you can keep visiting my blog for regular posts.

I thought adding this feature may make it more convenient for some of my readers to keep up to date on everything happening here in Zhanjiang!

I have been testing this service out for the last couple of posts and it is working fine. The only minor problem I noticed was that the first few e-mails were delivered to my spam box, which I fixed by setting them to "not spam." So, if you do choose to sign up for e-mail updates, you may want to keep an eye on your spam box at first.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

More Letters from Students

Some highlights from a recent batch of letters from students...

Today is New Year's! I and Milos go to shopping. Magnitude people on row great. Very noisy and lots of fun.
"Go to shopping" is a Chinglish expression that is likely the bane of all English teachers in China. That and its companion phrase, "how to say?" Points for using the word "magnitude" though.
Last nigh my friends and me counted backwards in our dormitory. Did you count backwards? Happy New Year.
It took me a second to catch the counting backwards as referring to the countdown to the New Year: 10, 9, 8, 7, ... Happy New Year's!
The winter holiday come here. During holiday, you want or not away from China to go home? If you go home, help me say "hello" to your family, please.
"Hello everyone," from CoCo!

And now, for the more mushy stuff...
Last week, our class took a photo with you. I felt very happy. Because maybe you are the only one foreign teacher in my life. So, I can take a photo with you is my honor! I will kept the photo until I change an old woman. China have one speech: You as my teacher only one day, you will become my father all my life!
Most of the students are just very genuinely kind and great to work with. On days when I'm out in town and getting frustrated from being stared down and cat-called at, I try to remember the students.
Please allow me to avail myself of this chance to extend my New Year's greets to you. First of all, I wish you happy new year and may the new year bring your family good health and happiness. Secondly, I do apology for my wrong doing that I didn't deliver my wish to you at the arrival of Christmas timely. Finally, I admire you very much cause you are so nice, easygoing. I enjoy making friends with you.
Again, the students can be a real pleasure to work with.

I started the letter writing campaign for this class, because as accounting majors, I found their level of spoken English to be very low. The letters give them an outlet to "say" things they may not be able to communicate with me orally and provide a great chance to make sure they are practicing and thinking about English outside of class.

I hope it has been a help to them, I know I've sure enjoyed reading what they have to say and writing back.