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This page contains archives from the now-defunct Barefoot Fool blog.

Current Letters from James may be found starting here.

 
The Barefoot Fool: Archive
June, 2004

Thursday, July 29, 2004

In Memoriam: The Barefoot Fool

All good things must pass.

When I started this blog, I was a bright-eyed fresh young kid of 48, still living with his parents and dreaming of going to the mysterious East.

That was a lifetime ago.

Last January, to be exact.

Now, with over seven months of China under my belt (and sometimes in my face), it's time to move on.

Looking back, I'm pleased that I could share some of the rather mundane details of acclimating to life in China.  But now that I'm acclimated, I feel less inclined to burden others with "Golly gee, I went here and I saw this and I did that."

So there will be a new blog, already available in nascent form at The Temple Guy: A Blog.  That blog will have a two-fold emphasis:

  1. It will report new pages built on The Temple Guy main site.  I will go out and see or do something of value, and then I will build one or more pages about it.  The blog will direct you to those pages.
  2. It will give me a place to reflect more personally on the experiences that went into making those pages.  Interesting people I met, a telling conversation held: these will be reserved for the blog.

No more about my domestic situation, nothing about the mechanics of teaching, zip about the ESL biz in Shenzhen.

Unless it's really, really interesting, the kind of experience that can exemplify the heart and soul of a nation of 1.3 billion, give or take a few.

I appreciate all those who have been reading The Barefoot Fool--nearly 3500 visits since I started it on January 10 (nearly 3400 of which were by Prince Roy!).

Rest assured that, while the new stuff will be of lasting significance, I will still be the same old Fool you've come to know (and sometimes love).

After all: The Barefoot Fool IS The Temple Guy.

The Barefoot Fool has left the building.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

What Non-Bloggers Don't Know

Once again I have been taken to task (this time in the comments section of another person's blog) for not posting frequently enough to this blog.  And once again, the person who chastised me is someone who does not keep a blog herself.

I was going to send off a quick "sorry" or perhaps a "neener-neener-NEEEEENer" but I thought it might be more constructive to explain patiently yet again why some bloggers do not always blog consistently.

In a word: we have lives.

There are many kinds of blogs.  The worst are the "what-I'm-listening-to-right-now" types of blogs: "Oh-my-god!  I can't believe what happened in homeroom today!" or "Dear Diary" would be typical leads for these blogs.  Their readership is similarly--uh--deep.  These bloggers tend to post every day.

Then there's the "I-read-the-news-today-oh-boy" blogs.  These are written by people who are responding to current events, or to what they've seen on the web.  A sub-category would be other media-watchers: TV bloggers, movie bloggers, etc.  The newsies often blog every day.  But they can, because they never leave their chairs.

The "original" blog was similar to this.  It consisted basically of links to what the blogger found interesting, with little additional comment.  My, how things have changed.

Next type: the travel blog.  These are generally posted whenever the blogger hits a hotel or internet cafe with connections.  (I did this once myself, before the term "blog" was current; see below for more details on that.)  These blogs range from deep insight into the culture experienced, to restaurant reviews, to picture pages of me-n-Mabel-standin'-in-front-of-[insert landmark here].

Though my list is not exhaustive, I'll wrap it up here with the type of blog this has been: the I'm-living-abroad-and-damn-things-are-different-here blog.  Some of these are of general interest; others are little more than a substitute for mass e-mailings.  This Fool's blog veers between the two.

But changes are coming; big changes.

There are three things that have kept me from blogging in the last 10 days.

  1. Serial birthday celebrations, starting on Thursday the 15th and finishing (I think) last night.
  2. Life: I wrapped up a four-month class on Monday; last night's party was both for my birthday AND the end-of-the-class.  The party was at my place, which involved cleaning up, shopping, food preparation, etc.  Also, Hailan moved out on Sunday, so there was a certain amount of effort expended helping her, and rearranging things after she was gone.
  3. Despite all these things, I have spent a LOT of time at the computer.  I have created a new home page that will bring all my endeavors--this one, Mi-le-fo, One Good Shot, my teaching site, and others under one roof.  Two of these will be particularly exciting.  One is the Hong Kong Temple Project that I've mentioned before; the other is a re-designed version of my Japan "blog," as well as a bunch of new material on Japanese temples.

You see, in 2001 I undertook a very interesting journey.  I walked just over 300 miles (488 kilometers)--yes, I walked all the way--from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Old Tokaido highway.  I then traveled by train through Nara and Asuka and on to Mount Koya, where I did the ritual preparations for a major pilgrimage.  This was the 900-mile (1,450 kilometer) Shikoku 88 Temple Circuit, done partially on foot and partially by public transportation.

In all, I was on the road from September 5th to November 16, a total of 74 days.  I carried a laptop computer and a digital camera; Japan's telecommunications were sophisticated even then, and I had a PC card that served as a data uplink, so I could use the internet from virtually anywhere.

I began posting a Logbook on September 1st, four days before my departure, and, after sporadic entries following my return, I closed it on December 2nd.  It is, in essence, a blog with pictures, although the term "blog" and, more importantly, easy access to proper blogging software, were still spreading and hadn't achieved the currency they have today.  (Read more about the word blog and the evolution of the phenomenon.)

That website contained a few errors, some culs-de-sac due to changed plans, and not a little angst as I went through the transformations wrought by pilgrimage.  I am working on refining the material, attempting to keep the original "feel" while cleaning out the red herrings and adding in insights I've gained since then.  Nothing beats the immediacy of a journal kept "as it happened," written in temple rooms, in train stations, and by roadsides; but the reading public deserves more: more research, more accuracy, more polish.

And that, finally, brings me to one more point about blogging.  Some bloggers may be able to just toss off a piece here and there rather casually, like writing an e-mail home.  But in order to write anything worth reading, I need time and focus.  As I look back on my nearly-seven months of blogging, I can see that the worst crap I've written was done "because I was supposed to," not because I was ready to (see, for example, some of the "catch-ups" in March).  But when my muse was present, when I had a chance to really process my experiences, it was better (examples: The Old Road on March 25, and This is China, too (look fast) on April 6--maybe my best piece to date).

In days to come, the blog will begin to focus more on events that will be chronicled elsewhere in the site, a sort of "What's new" and how it came to be.  In other words, it will lose that "I went here, I did this" quality, and become more like "I wrote this, and here's why/how."  Stay tuned.

It's gratifying that so many people (not just my darling friend who spurred this entry) have been shouting "More! More!" instead of "Less! Less!"  But (I should put this on a T-shirt) "Life is what happens when you should be blogging."  Those of you who find my schedule or my content less than satisfying, I would encourage you to visit Blogger.com or other sites and start a blog of your own.  The more the merrier!
Posted 7/22/2004 at 9:00 PM

Monday, July 12, 2004

Whirl Wind Weekend

Last year I had the pleasure of teaching a "NOVA Academy" at FLS International in Glendora, CA.  The previous year (2002) I had been Academic Director of the school (where I met my darling Hailan), but at the end of that year I left to go to work at Hsi Lai Temple.  I left the temple in summer of 2003 to intensify my studies, and was picking up a little part-time work here and there.  My old boss (and beer buddy) Mike called me in in September for a four-week class.  The students were all regulars at NOVA, a competitor of my old company Aeon in Japan.  It was a real treat to spend three-and-a-half hours every day with ten young (early twenties or so), energetic, willing Japanese students, reminiscent of my nearly-five-years in Japan.

One of them, Kei, stood out from the rest.  She was able to translate things for me that the weaker students couldn't get, and she always had a big smile and a helping heart.  I was quite surprised to learn that her mother had died of cancer just three months earlier; this was truly an extraordinary young woman (she turned 20 during the course), one who could really "roll with the punches."

Well, we kept in touch by e-mail (as I did with several of the students), and a few weeks ago she wrote and asked if I were coming to Japan (as I had previously said I had hoped to do).  I said it seemed unlikely, but if she had any free time, why didn't she bring a friend and come see Hailan and me in Shenzhen?

Long story short: she did.  She and another of my students, Kaoru, arrived on Friday and left today (Monday).  Kei had found a ticket for only 25,000 yen--right now about $230-235 USD--and, with the free rent at Chez Nous, "the girls" (as we have come to call them) were on their way.

I had hoped they would arrive in the morning so I could meet them at the Hong Kong airport, as I had a class in the evening.  Unfortunately their arrival was at 6:55 PM, so there was no way I could get there.  My class finished at 9:00, and one of my students graciously agreed to drop me at the border crossing.  There were the girls, sitting on their suitcases exactly where I had suggested!

We came home, they met Hailan, and everyone retired.

"The Girls": Kaoru (left) and Kei, at the HK Airport before departure

Saturday, they wanted to visit Luohu Commercial City, a shopping center at the main border crossing.  We did, and while they shopped, I bought a few things of my own, including a life-sized head of the Buddha that I will illustrate at a later time.

Here's a tip if you ever have visitors from Japan: most of them will only want to do things that are in a guidebook published in Japan.  I think it's probably a trust issue.  I once took seven Japanese friends to the American Southwest.  I knew a lot of little off-the-record places, and tried my best to share them with the group.  But it was tough.  Typically, we would be standing at a small ruin, watching the moon rising above it.  But it wasn't in the guidebook, so while two of the group (the guys) were appreciating the moonrise, the rest had their noses in their guidebooks, trying to determine if there was anything nearby "worth seeing"!

My guests this weekend had bought a guidebook--for Hong Kong.  Naturally, the only Shenzhen place listed was one that had easy access from Hong Kong: Luohu Commercial City, near the train station.

So that's where we went.  We brought our purchases home, and then went into Hua Xiang Bei (a tone-y shopping district) to meet Hailan for dinner.  She took us to a place called Yellow Crane Tower, named after a landmark in her hometown of Wuhan.  Naturally, the cuisine was Wuhanese (and, naturally, delicious--take note, HL, if you're reading this!)

Then I took the girls to Moondance, where almost none of the usual suspects materialized.  Peter and his supernaturally smart daughter Lilly came, and of course Gary and Yanni were around, but that was it--a very small crowd.  I never did hear from Justin, whom I had counted on for ballast.

We were home before 1 AM, then up Sunday morning for a foray into Hong Kong.  The girls had no problem visa-wise; Kei tells me that currently Japanese can visit China up to 15 days without a visa.

We bussed to Prince Edward, MTRed to Tsim Sha Tsui, and ferried to Central.  We split up for four hours (as we had at Luohu).  I had a late lunch at Caramba! in Elgin Street, a very authentic Mexican place, where I learned an interesting factoid.  This is the second Caramba! waitress I have met who is from Nepal; when I mentioned this, the girl said, "Oh, yes.  There are many Nepalese in Hong Kong.  Our fathers came here with the British army."

Life meets history.

Next I sought out some little temples west of the Man Mo I had twice visited previously.

Shui Yuet Temple in Tai Ping Shan Street (darkened area)

These will be illustrated on my new temple site later, but a word here: They're like nothing I've ever seen.  Imagine a row of narrow shops, about 10 or 12 feet across and twice as deep.  In that row, one "shop" might have an open front.  A large statue is on an altar on the back wall, and smaller statues are on tables and altars down the side.  A lot of incense smoke is billowing out of the place; on the left is a desk with a fortune teller (called "oracles" in the government lists I have received) and on the right is a desk where incense and (presumably) other necessaries (perhaps ghost money?) are sold.  Several people are praying at one shrine or another; workers are tidying up; and the whole place seems...alive.  This pretty well describes what I saw.  One had a more closed front, but the doorway was still relatively wide.  I decided out of respect not to do any shooting inside--I'll wait until the Hong Kong Temple Project is a reality, and I have some "credentials"--but the pictures shown here can give you some idea.

The (unfortunately blurred) interior of Shui Yuet Temple
  in Tai Ping Shan Street

After the temples, I walked into a Wellcome grocery store and bought--TA DAAA!--avocados.  $8.90 HK apiece--a little over a dollar US--but I felt like I had found El Dorado.  Later, I felt like a real criminal when I "smuggled" them across the border.  (Actually, I had forgotten that I had them.  But since no one asks, "Are you carrying any fresh fruits or vegetables today?"--as they do when you enter California from Arizona--I guess it wasn't really an issue.  There is in fact no sort of customs declaration when crossing the SZ-HK border, though there is a customs "presence" on the Chinese side, and drug sniffing dogs in Hong Kong.)

Next I stopped in a shop in Queen Victoria Street and picked up an essential item for any Shenzhener venturing into Hong Kong.  The SZ SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card--essentially, the "chip" in a mobile phone--doesn't work over there; but instead of buying another phone, you can instead just buy a Hong Kong SIM Card.  That's what I did, for only $98 HKD (around $13 US) and now Hailan (or anyone who has the number) can chase me down while I'm over there temple-hunting.

I re-joined the girls at 6:30 and we headed for home, stopping for snacks along the way.  At home, we all showered (separately!) and settled down to watch movies.  They had unanimously settled on Spiderman 2 which, as luck would have it, was a dud copy.  It seemed to start in the middle, and had been "letter-boxed" without actually changing the aspect ratio, so the top and bottom of the picture were simply cut off.  We moved on to Haunted Mansion, and when it finished, Kaoru announced, "I'm not tired" so we watched 50 First Dates.  (DVDs of older films tend to be more reliable when bought on the street.  Hailan says we can actually take Spiderman 2 back and exchange it; I think we'll wait a few days, and see if the product improves!)

So we retired after 2, with plans to get up at 5!  But the mosquitoes in the living room woke me at 3:45, so I was a bit knackered on the way to the airport.

Ah, the trip to the airport.  The shuttle we hired--promised at 6:00 AM, as the girls had a 9:15 flight--arrived at the pick-up point at the border at 6:30.  It was late, but not so late that I was nervous--yet.  We were sharing the ride with a three-member family named Zhong emigrating to Canada; the ride was $120 HKD apiece, just $20 more than the regular airport bus.  And we didn't have to walk through the border crossing that was already terribly crowded at that early hour!

That would have been a better deal.  We passed the China side OK (though I was intrigued to see that the driver had to put his finger on a touch-pad that checked his fingerprint before we could cross), but the HK cops pulled the Zhongs out of the van and into a building for a second health check (second after the perfunctory temperature check taken through the mini-van's windows).  By 7:20 I was sweating bullets--and the Zhongs re-emerged.  The driver promised it was only 30 minutes from there to the airport, and we arrived as he said, at 7:50.  This was plenty of time for the girls to get checked in.  They did a little shopping for "omiyage"--the obligatory souvenirs--and then they were through the gates.

I headed over to Kowloon on the airport express (changing at Tsing Yi to save some dough), and bought a map of Kowloon at the Map Centre.  Then the bus home and a long, luxurious nap before my Monday night class.

********

I started this post late Monday night; the server went belly up before I finished, so I am concluding it late Tuesday/early Wednesday.
Posted 7/14/2004 at 1:20 AM

Thursday, July 8, 2004

Once more into the breach

Awright, let's get this over with:

Monday, June 28: Grades, yes; Avocados, no

I went to school today to finish my grades.  Ironic: I'm a last-minute kind of guy, but I started trying to get my grades in on the first day it was possible: and here it was--through no fault of my own--the last day, and I was finally getting them done.

It took longer than I expected, though, so my trip to Shekou to buy avocados was pretty rushed.

Avocados?  I had invited friends over for tomorrow night for chips and guacamole.  When I came to Shenzhen in February, I saw this gift from the Aztec gods (did you know that the name is from a Nahuatl word, "ahuacatl," meaning testicle?  It may be because of the shape, or because the Aztecs used it as an aphrodisiac)  in the Park'n'Shop in Taizi Road, so I thought there would be no problem in getting them.

February.  Winter.  After checking all over my district (Futian), I went to the place I had originally seen them and--nothing.  Avocado is a winter fruit, and can only be found here seasonally.

A quick check of the internet later that night showed that some people have used broccoli, asparagus, or green peas to make guacamole, but usually with at least one avocado in the mix.  I decided not to do that to my friends, so the avocado party became a salsa party.

Tuesday, June 29: par-TAY

This was a party of the American kind (or partially Mexican), not the Communist kind.  A total of seven attended, and we had beer; margaritas; real tortilla chips and home made salsa; and even some refried beans, cheese, and lettuce to wrap in tortillas along with the salsa.  Yes, this stuff is all available here, but the chips, beans, and tortillas are a one-hour-or-more bus ride away, and they cost an arm and a leg (bag of chips or package of 10 tortillas: 33 RMB, over four US Dollars; 1 can of Rosarita refried beans: 45 RMB, or almost six USD).  A bottle of Sol beer can be had at the Wal-Mart near here for a hefty 8.9 RMB (over a dollar)--whereas much larger bottles of Tsing Tao are about 3 RMB--under 40 cents!  I don't recall what I paid for the tequila, Cointreau, and Grand Marnier, as I bought them last February.  It's probably better not to remember, so they can be enjoyed in a pure sort of way.

But nothing's too good for Keri, Kate, David, Eric, Su-lin, and of course Hailan.

There were fringe benefits, too: I bought more in the way of serving plates, beer mugs (in the freezer), some items for the house (door mats, etc.)  I also did some major cleaning: With guests coming at 7:00, I was scrubbing the kitchen floor when Hailan called at 5:30.  "Oh," she said, "you should have parties more often."  Yeah, yeah...

I also jury-rigged Hailan's unused air-conditioner (well, it was used--as a bedside table) into half of the living room's sliding door to the balcony; she has often used it since while watching TV (when I'm teaching in the evenings).

So all in all, the party was good for all.

Wednesday, June 30: Idiom Salon: Bosco and the CCP

Speaking of parties:

Tonight was the fourth of my four Salons at the Special Zone Press Tower.  The topic was idioms: not a laundry list, but how to use them, and when, and where to find the meaning of new idioms (go to Google, type the word idiom and then the idiom itself inside quotes--try it!), etc.

The crowd was bigger than usual, and there was one group that seemed quite out of place: a man in a suit, two well-dressed ladies, and an older guy in shorts and a sort of Hawaiian shirt.

Afterward, the older guy came up and chatted.  He cracked a few  jokes, like "Before tonight, I thought I should only use idioms to talk to idiots!"  He introduced himself as "Bosco Chang" and explained that "Bosco is Italian for 'bush'--but no relation!  No relation!"

I was hooked on Bosco.

He asked for my card, and explained that he was working for the Mayor's office.  The Mayor has declared a campaign to create "one million English speakers" in Shenzhen.  The Shenzhen Daily commissioned a special book called "English 100 for Shenzhen Citizens"; you can see the first installment of the newspaper's serialized version here.  (Succeeding entries are on Wednesdays; click the "Fool-Links" button above to find a link to the Daily.)  The whole project is called "Speak.Shenzhen" (with various punctuation marks between the two words; I have chosen what seems to be the most common.)  You can read some of the hype in this article about a long-running English salon at the Shenzhen Library, and this one about a new salon in a park in my district that allegedly attracted more than 2,000 people!

Anyway, Bosco said he wants me to "help the Mayor."  (N.B.: It's now over a week later; Bosco, why haven't you called?)  He also said that the two ladies were leaders of "groups of 10,000" in the Mayor's campaign, and that the man in the suit was the Chinese Communist Party Boss for Guangdong Province.

Glad I didn't teach anything subversive.

Saturday, July 3rd: The Old Jazz Bar

Gary is in Beijing this weekend, and Justin worked Friday night in Hong Kong, so I skipped the Moondance experience.  But I had long seen this place across from my bus stop, called "Old Jazz Bar" with a picture of Louis Armstrong on the sign.  Ben the Aussie lives in the same building as the bar, so we had agreed to have a beer there tonight.

As it turns out, Ben didn't make it.  But Justin did, if somewhat late, and he and Hailan and I had really great Tequila Sunrises for only 30 RMB each.  The place also serves real food (pasta, etc.) at a reasonable price.  Sadly, as Justin warned me, there was no jazz to be had; "Old Jazz" was only a "theme," not a promise.  But good food, cheap drinks, tolerable live music of the Willie-Nelson-Carpenters kind, and walking distance from home?  I'll be back.

Sunday, July 4: (party)

I guess some expatriots make a big thing out of their home countries' holidays, trying to create a little bit of home in a foreign land.  Me, not so much.  The wing-ding I had last Tuesday was for authentic reasons: Keri was leaving for the summer; Kate and David and I had shared lunch several times a week, and with the year over, we wouldn't be together much until September;  Eric had had a bunch over a couple of weeks ago, and this was a payback.  (Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention Eric's party: 20th floor of a building in Overseas Chinese Town, overlooking Splendid China, with a view of Hong Kong and the nightly fireworks at Window of the World.  A truly elegant place, and a first-class shindig.)

To me, saying "goodbye" and "thanks" to friends are good reasons for a party.  What happened in America on this date in 1776?  Well, any excuse for a party, I guess.  While Justin was having a "real" Independence Day party elsewhere, I had Eric, and Hailan had her friend Rose, over to eat up the chips (with freshly-made salsa) and drink some of the beer left over from Tuesday's party.  Before we went to Old Jazz Bar last night, we had shopped for DVDs on the sidewalk.  I got 14 discs for 80 RMB (that's less than 75 cents apiece), including titles like Fahrenheit 911, Troy, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Van Helsing, Spiderman 2 (banned in Chinese theaters, but readily available on street corners), The Passion of the Christ, The Day After Tomorrow, and the one we watched together at our party, The Guru.  Also from last year: Big Fish, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Italian Job, and 50 First Dates.  It was fun watching The Guru with a mixed crowd; there was more sex and nudity than I had expected, but no one seemed uncomfortable.

So we had a party, and even though Eric is an American (actually an Angeleno), for some reason we forgot to say "Happy Fourth of July" to each other.  It's more about friends than traditions I guess.

Monday, July 5: Milestone

Having just dissed the concept of memorializing big occasions, I must say:

Today marks exactly six months since my move to China.  Wow.  [NB: I made a mistake; it was only five months. -TTG]

Wednesday, July 7: Steve, and Anson

Well, I finally heard from Steve at the SZ Daily salon.  There will be no salon tonight, or for the next couple of weeks.  My "four weeks" are up, and I suspect they're re-tooling, and don't expect that I'll be their "steady" anymore.

Meanwhile, I got a disturbing e-mail from a student today:

Dear James,                             July 7,2004
     my name's Anson. you students! my school number is 03098XXX. when I knew the English oral mark is 69. I was sad. becase if I get 70. I can get a scholarship.please give me a choice, change the mark to 70. I will study hard grateful to you!

I'm looking for you key~!please!~
                                        yours
                                         Anson
I forwarded this to Shirley in the College English Department, seeking her advice, and she phoned shortly thereafter.  The only reason grades may be changed is if "the teacher made a mistake in calculations," so the grade would have to stand.

That's too bad.  I mean, given the slightly subjective element of any numeric grade, the difference between a 69 and a 70 would be hard to pin down.  However, short of lying and saying I made a mistake (which would then set in motion a process involving untold numbers of school staff to get a grade changed after it had been published), there was no way I could help the poor kid.  Here's the reply I sent him:

Dear Anson,
I'm sorry, but I will not be able to help you.
After the grades are recorded, the school does not allow the teachers to change them.  I could only make such a change if I made a mistake in calculating the grade.

I checked my calculations again.  They are correct.  And I cannot tell a lie.
I wish I could help you, but it is impossible.
Good luck, and I hope to see you next year.
Sincerely,
James

Mental note to self: Change all scores of 69 to 70 next year.

********

OK, we're caught up.  Lots of exciting stuff is coming, though:  Two Japanese girls, whom I taught in Southern California, will come for a visit this weekend; I will be wrapping up my thrice-weekly class next week, and probably start teaching three hours daily in a summer camp the following week; more on the Hong Kong Temple Project; and, as soon as my sister sends some information I need, a whole new webpage which I've been building in FrontPage on my computer (one of the projects which has kept me from writing this blog!)

Stay tuned.
Posted 7/9/2004 at 1:40 PM

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

The Bloga Continues

We are still in catch-up mode here.  Picking up from yesterday:

Wednesday, June 16: Stock Market Salon

In my second of four salons, the topic was "Stock Markets: America and China."  I learned a thing or two in preparing for this one, I can tell you.  I was to speak about the American stock market, and Steve about the Chinese.  Then I led a discussion.  The purpose of selling stocks is to raise capital, yet this is a socialist country.  There was a good deal of debate about this before the first exchange opened in Shanghai, and I wanted to know how the students felt about this apparent conflict.

One bright guy summed it up nicely: "When I receive a payment from a customer, I don't care if it's capitalist money or socialist money; I just put it in my bank."  Point taken.

Steve was a bit disappointed at the turn out tonight; we are finding that people are more likely to attend if the topic is strictly English-learning-related.

Friday, June 18: HOORAY!--sort of

Well, I gave my last final today, and, through intense preparation, managed to have all of my grades calculated and ready to enter before leaving campus.

Well, intense preparation except for the part where I left my computer password at home.  But no problem; I can just call Shirley in the office and get it.

But she was in a meeting.  Until 4:15.  And the bus was leaving at 4:55.

Nevertheless, I managed to get all the grades in, but not double-checked.  No problem; I'll be going back Tuesday for the final luncheon of the year; I can check them then.

Saturday, June 19: Hailan didn't move

When Hailan and I first became a couple, we were living a hemisphere away from each other.  As the relationship developed, we talked about my coming to China, and us living together. Later, we realized that it might be more prudent to wait before taking such a major step.

Well, the events of April and May accelerated things, and we ended up living together much sooner than expected. 

Perhaps too soon.  Last week Hailan came to me and said that, with her recent illness, the new job, and so on, she was feeling a lot of stress.  Some of it was the result of living with a "significant other" for the first time in her life, and something had to give.  So she was planning to move out, though the relationship is still going strong.  Today was supposed to be moving day, but, as happened so many times in April, the deal fell through.  [At this writing, on July 7, she is still here.  I am so glad she is, but the househunting continues.]

Tuesday, June 22: Litchi Lunchi

Today was the closing luncheon for the school year, and the day the president handed out merit awards to the teachers (as well as year-end bonuses).  Since the evaluations on which the merit pay was judged happened in the first semester, before I arrived, I was not eligible to receive one.  (That's what I keep telling myself, anyway.)

Shenzhen Polytechnic Brand Litchis

As a consolation, though, forget the several hundred U.S. dollars' worth of bonuses: we got boxes of litchis!  For a brief period in June, the Nanshan District in the west end of Shenzhen goes as mad for litchis as the Japanese do for cherry blossoms or Americans for the World Series.  As it turns out, not only do we have a litchi plantation on our campus, but we actually have boxes printed with the school's "brand" on them!  Personally, the litchi mystique has passed me by, but Hailan is excited about getting them.  [Note on July 7: Today we threw out the excess number of litchis that went bad in the fridge.  Everything passes.]

At lunch, I was seated at the same table as the president, and we had a nice chat through his interpreter.  (He spoke to the Japanese staff at the table directly, however; his Japanese is quite good.)  When he asked what I thought of Shenzhen, I said the usual: an exciting place, a boomtown, etc.  When he asked for an example, I told him that it seems like everyone in this town has three business cards.  He loved that, and raised his wine glass in a toast.  He then told me that, while the contract says SZPT teachers cannot work outside, they are actually encouraged to do so (to keep them fresh, perhaps?) as long as it doesn't interfere with their main duty to the school.  I told him that, in any country, the institution that sponsors your visa always gets your first loyalties; this prompted another toast.  I guess he finds me witty, or sumpin'.

After lunch, I headed for the office to wrap up my grades, only to discover that the program necessary to do so was down.  Damn, damn, damn.  I guess I'll have to return another day.  Here I am, with more students than I've ever had before, and ready earlier than ever, but circumstances keep working against me.

Wednesday, June 23: The Hong Kong Temple Project

Back on May 27, I mentioned that, in traveling to Hong Kong, "while I love trains, I will probably do the bus thing in the future" because it was cheaper and more convenient.

Well, today I found the weak point in the bus system.  There is a place where you get off the bus and back on again to go through Hong Kong immigration.  Today, the "Visitors" line took longer than the "HK Residents" line; as the only non-resident on the bus, I was the only one who took 25 minutes to get through.  When I went out to re-board the bus I discovered it had left without me!  It was 30 minutes until another Prince-Edward-bound bus from the same company came.  So it was noon when I reached Prince Edward.

I was on a mission: I am pursuing the creation of a "Hong Kong Temple Project," the purpose of which (according to the prospectus I'm working on) is "to locate and list all Chinese temples within the Hong Kong S.A.R.; to study and record the layout and images of the Hong Kong temples; and to disseminate this information to the public through the Internet and through flyers available at each temple."

The first step is the most daunting: while one Hong Kong government office sent me a "definitive" list of 321 temples, there is plenty of literature stating that Hong Kong has "over 600 temples."  So I went to Hong Kong expressly to determine the cause of this discrepancy.  I failed, but it was a fruitful trip nonetheless.

Leaving the MTR (subway) at Yau Ma Tei, I walked a short distance toward a government  Map Centre, stopping to visit the priceless little Tian Hou (Tin Hau) temple at Yau Ma Tei.  This will eventually be written up on my temple site.  At the Map Centre (when will those Brits learn to spell?),  I purchased 1:20,000 survey maps of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.  I am currently locating temples marked on these maps.

Next, I visited the Antiquities and Monuments Office (in a fine old building dating back to 1900); although they couldn't account for the actual numbers of temples, the clerks I spoke with encouraged me to write a formal letter to the Executive Secretary, and promised that once the request was made in writing, they would look into it.  (My experience with HK bureaucracy so far leads me to believe they will do exactly as they say.)  I also picked up a small stack of amazing little pamphlets on various history trails and other sites that the AMO oversees; these will be invaluable in helping me understand some of the things I expect to see in the near future.

My next stop (all of this, by the way, was located on a stroll down Nathan Road) was at Patel's Wall Street Exchange, where I was able to exchange money at a favorable rate and send it home in one transaction.  This is the way to go: no more of this running around nonsense.

As I headed toward the Hong Kong Travel Bureau and the Star Ferry, I exchanged greetings with a Buddhistic-looking beggar.  He held out a book to me, which I realized was a record of donations.  So I gave him 20 HK Dollars (about $2.50 American) and signed the book, making a request for "Peace."  I noticed that all previous donors had given something in the hundreds; I wondered if this clever old guy would add a "0" to my paltry sum to "prime the pump" for the next donor?  The holy card of Guan Yin he gave me in return is now nestled in behind the statue of the same bodhisattva in the shrine in my room.

Finally, I called on the much-vaunted and from my perspective totally worthless Hong Kong Travel Bureau.  They are located next to the Star Ferry, and despite glowing reports in Lonely Planet (among others), the woman who "helped" me was curt bordering on rude, and her responses were perfunctory at best.  She didn't even listen to my question, but rather interrupted me and said she would "print out a list of temples," which turned out to be something I had located on the internet weeks ago.  When I attempted to restate my question, she again cut in and said, "Sorry, sir, that's all we have."  Now if the place had been jam-packed with visitors, I would have understood such behavior; but this was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, and the staff outnumbered the visitors.  Two or three hovered in the background, listening to our exchanges but offering no additional help.  As the useless document was printing out, two other staffers came over and made small talk with the woman helping me.  I'll never count on them for anything again.

I now had a choice of walking back the way I came and catching the MTR at Tsim Sha Tsui, or taking the Star Ferry across to the Hong Kong side, and jumping on the same line at Central.

You know what I did: had to try the ferry!  It was rainy, which added a certain nautical atmosphere to the whole thing.  The ferry is definitely a romantic ride; gotta find a way to get HL over there.

Throughout the day I found 3 or 4 small bookshops, but bought nothing.  Just the opportunity of browsing was like heaven.  Back at Prince Edward, I caught my bus--no problems this time--and was home in time for a shower and a quick nap before tonight's salon.

Wednesday, June 23: Public Speaking Salon

Tonight's theme was "How to be an effective speaker of English"--meaning public speaker.  There were over 50 in attendance, so Steve was happy.

The only glitch in the whole affair was that there were some "guests" invited to speak--basically, they were plugging an overseas study program.  So I did my thing, teaching the students about eye contact, facial expression, gestures, rehearsal, etc.  Then these two guys from an unnamed country in the Southern hemisphere got up and did the most Gawd-awful dog-and-pony show I had ever seen.  I wanted to get up when they were finished and say, "Thank you, gentlemen, for illustrating all the mistakes that I just spent 45 minutes warning these students against."  But I refrained.

Thursday, June 24: My plot to become a bar fly gets off the ground

After tonight's class, I went to Moondance, my regular watering hole, and negotiated a deal with the owners to offer lessons there on Saturday nights.

Yes, you read right: This Fool will be doing a salon in a saloon!  Well, actually more of a class than a salon, as the students will all be beginners.  The students will get a drink and two hours of English for 50RMB; I get half of the proceeds.  Yanni, the female owner, promises to drag in all of her friends, and I've been beating the drum myself, so it should be a smash.  The kick-off will be on July 17--which happens to be my birthday.  Is that auspicious or what?

Thursday and Friday, June 24 and 25: Tequila Nights and Temple Days

Yanni went home after the negotiations were over and the deal sealed, but her Canadian husband Gary stayed on.  Some time after midnight, Gary, a German regular there named Thomas, and I started hoisting tequila shots.  We quit after the fifth (or sixth?) at around 4 a.m.

Then, Friday morning, I got up to meet my Aussie friend Ben and his Russian girlriend to take them up to Hong Fa Temple.  Shortly after I got up, I began to wonder why I wasn't hung over--and realized I was still drunk!  And that's why I should probably take the fifth precept--against drinking!  Anyway, it was a pleasant morning at the temple.

I headed home and prepped a class, which prevented me from catching a nap.  I went to the class on about four-and-a-half hours of sleep, and since Justin was in town, I headed over to Moondance for our usually Friday night.  And wouldn't you know it?  It happened again! Well, this time I got out by about 2:30, but at one point there were something like eleven people all doing salt-tequila-lime at the same time!

Gary called recently and said he's planning a "tequila party" at the bar; I think I may have started something.

********

Time to stop for now.  The next entry will bring us up to date.  We still have parties and a major milestone to discuss, but we're almost there!
Posted 7/8/2004 at 1:40 AM

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Whew!

"What the Hell happened to June?" you may well ask.

That's just what I'm wondering.

I remember a few things about the end of May, and then...oh, wait...it's starting to come back to me.  In June I tested nearly SIX HUNDRED students face-to-face, then calculated and recorded nearly SIX HUNDRED grades.

But...hmmmm...I think that was done by mid-month.  So what happened to the second half?...uhhh...Aha!  Yes!  The post-semester blue funk!

God, I haven't had that since leaving the regular classroom in 1994.  Wow. Ten years since I ended a term in June.  In the Junes since then:

  • 1995  I was in Utah with the Urich family; they were leaving for Canada, and I house-sat through the summer
  • 1996  Just finished being in New Mexico, where Robert Urich was doing the Lazarus Man
  • 1997-2001  In Japan.  Teaching, but year-round, with no summer break
  • 2002  Working for FLS International, where June was the beginning of the busy season, not the end
  • 2003  Had left the temple, and was studying Chinese at Pasadena City College, as well as continuing my religious studies at Hsi Lai University.  The Chinese class ran into July, and I went to summer school at HLU, so no visible break.

Yup.  Ten years since I had the summertime blues.

And what a funk it's been.  Last week, some of the Shenzhen weather stations recorded a high of 39 degrees--that's over 102 for you Americanos.  One-oh-two, you say, any Angeleno can handle that.

Did I mention the humidity was in the high 80's and low 90's?  This is no desert; we're at about 22 degrees north latitude, and since the Tropic of Capricorn is at 23.5, we are in the tropics.

So that's a tropical one-oh-two.

Did I say "latitude" or "lassitude"?

Anyway, enough with the whinging.  Despite the lassitude, some things did happen.  Here are a few highlights:

Wednesday, May 26 (before my last post): A birthday visit to the Buddha

In Japan, we celebrated the Buddha's birthday on April 8th, known there as "Hana Matsuri" or "Flower Festival."  People go to their local temple and bathe a statue of the Baby Buddha in sugar water.  The larger temples have parades, dance, and so on.  (Coincidentally, I became a vegetarian on April 8, 1994--without knowing it was the Buddha's birthday!)

In most Asian countries other than Japan, festivals are held according to the traditional--that is, the lunar--calendar.  This year, the 8th day of the 4th lunar month was on May 26.  So I decided to go up to Hong Fa Temple, the only Buddhist temple in town, and celebrate.

Getting to Hong Fa is pretty easy.  The 468 mini-bus runs near my house, and goes right up to the gate of Fairy Lake (Xian Hu) Gardens; then it's a 2RMB bus ride up the hill to the temple.  (Actually, as school was still in session, I started out on the 446 from the front gate of Shenzhen Polytechnic, and changed buses in Hua Xiang Bei.)  As I rode up the hill, I realized that, this being a Wednesday, there would be few tourists aboard; I wanted to start singing, "I think we're all Buddhists on this bus"--but then I realized that I'm not really a Buddhist, never having actually "taken the precepts."

Anyway, the temple was relatively quiet--I had only been there on weekends before--and was not the mob scene I expected.  I did my obeisances, and hung around for a while.  I didn't see any special activities; maybe they were scheduled earlier, or later, than my visit.  I met a pretty cool Taoist priest, and his assistant gave me a book on the Buddha's life.  I was touched--until later, when I saw that the temple was giving away stacks of them to all visitors.

Taoist Priest at Hong Fa (Buddhist) Temple

On the same tables as the Buddha's biography, I found one--and only one--copy of a picture that has been called the "Chinese Buddhist Pantheon."  You can see one on-line at Buddhanet, or download an entire e-book about the Pantheon from Buddhanet's e-Book Library (just scroll down to the title Popular Deities of Chinese Buddhism.)  The one I got at Hong Fa is a little different, and has more characters than I've seen before; when I've finished identifying all the figures, I'll be posting it on my Mi-le-fo site (or its successor; more on that later).

I dallied too long, and needed to get home from the temple in a hurry, as I had a class at 7:00 that night.  Problem #1: there had been plenty of buses coming up the hill, but now there were few going down.  Over a hundred people were waiting for a bus that seated under 50.  And that's when I noticed: everybody's a Buddhist when there are plenty of seats, but when seating was at a premium, everyone become a warrior.  Even the old ladies, you ask?  Yes!  They are the fiercest!

Well, I finally got down the hill and back on the 468.  It has often been mentioned what maniacs the mini-bus drivers are; in fact, Shenzhen will be phasing the mini-buses out next year, partially because of the danger they pose.  Wouldn't you know it, though?  Problem #2: When I was in a hurry, I managed to get the only cautious, courteous, S-L-O-W driver in all of China!  He trawled along, in case anyone failed to notice his arrival; he lingered at the stops, in case anyone was running to catch the bus; he slowed down (instead of speeding up, like his cohorts) when a light turned yellow.

Maddening.

But I made it to my class--after literally running from the bus to my apartment, grabbing my stuff, and taking a cab to the class venue.  I was therefore even more frustrated when I learned that one of my students--the one with the BMW the interior of which resembles a Lear Jet--had left the temple around the time I did, and had stopped for a leisurely dinner before class!  "Too bad I didn't know," he said, "I could have given you a ride."  AHHHHHHH! 

Happy birthday, Shakyamuni.

Oh, yeah: The biography of the Buddha I was given?  Hailan pointed out that it was written by none other than Master Hsing Yun, founder of the order that built Hsi Lai Temple and my university.

Sunday, May 30: A Day in Chiwan

Just to put things in order: This was the day we went to Chiwan.  See the post on May 30 below if you missed it.

Thursday, June 3: Money Sent

You may recall that, on May 27, I told a l-o-n-g story about trying to get RMB converted to dollars so I could send some money to the states.  Well, on June 3 I finally found the Western Union and sent it.  But not "just like that."

I wandered around like a Barefoot Fool looking for the bank; after a couple of phone calls to the friend who first told me about this (thanks, Matthew) I actually located the building.  I found the right office, and the right window, filled in the form, and...waited.  And...waited.  And...waited.  They told me there was a "computer problem," but in fact I think the three different clerks who worked on my transfer were--here's a word Hailan has taught me (mostly to describe my behavior at various times)--madaha, meaning "scatterbrained" or, as we might say, "freakin' clueless."

But after nearly two hours of waiting, and for a mere $15 US, the money was available in America within minutes.

Yay.

Wednesday, June 9: The first of four salons

This is a little story about the kind of thing that makes foreigners here shake their heads and say, "This is China."  As if that excuses everything.

I have been teaching on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays since March for the Shenzhen Daily, "the only English-language newspaper in South China," which I guess it is if you don't count Hong Kong as China, but that's a whole 'nother kettle o' worms, or can o' fish, or somethin'.

Anyway, it's a great job, and I've come to really cherish the openness and honesty of my students.  We can talk about anything, and the exchange can get really heated, but we're all still tight.  These people deserve the best.

So I felt a little dismayed when Steve, the great guy who coordinates the Wednesday night "salon" (scroll down to March 3rd in this post to read about my first-ever salon) asked me if I would be willing to do four consecutive salons.  This is something of an honor; the whole salon idea is that they bring in different speakers.  But this salon has been struggling of late, and Steve was hoping that I could build the numbers by lending some continuity.  There is some talk that afterward, I will become a kind of host-cum-facilitator to help generate even more energy.

Honor though it may be, it would mean disrupting my Wednesday night lesson.  I talked to my students, and they were ready to roll with it.  But somehow, the left hand and the right hand--that is, two editors at the same paper--never talked with each other about what they were doing.  So my immediate supervisor, Mary, was never told by her boss, Paul, that we had a green light to change the schedule; meanwhile, Steve had not actually gotten his approval from Paul, but from a woman that I later learned was the office manager!  To be fair, Paul had been away attending on his wife in her hometown at the birth of their first baby; nevertheless, I was feeling mighty stretched in ways that I didn't feel were my responsibility.  In my view, all that stuff should be worked out at the top, and they should just tell me where to be and when.  I didn't feel comfortable being the one to "negotiate" the schedule change with my students, but Mary couldn't really do it without permission from her boss.

Long story short: I did the salon, on "Male and Female Communication," and it went over pretty well.

After all, This is China.

Sunday, June 13: A salon with a twist

In my continuing bid to become "King of the Shenzhen English Salons," and as a favor to Justin, I took on a salon outside of my usual bailiwick. In fact, outside of Shenzhen's Special Economic Zone altogether.

The friend of Justin's who had organized the salon shall remain nameless; he's a good guy, and he was as chagrined about the following incident as I was.  I will leave out all the stuff about the madaha logistics, and the low pay, and the uncomfortable working conditions; this was after all a maiden effort.

I want to talk instead about what it feels like to face down pure, unadulterated evil.

Early in the evening, before the salon proper began, a man with the most severe crew cut I have ever seen approached me, gave a crisp handshake, and announced: "I AM MARTIN.  I AM FROM INNER MONGOLIA."

Hmmm, thinks I; home of Genghis Khan.

But I thought, well, a salon attracts all kinds, and unless he decided to sack the community center where we were meeting, he couldn't be much trouble.

I was wrong.

Before I was to give my speech on "The Universal Hero" (recycled from my first salon at the SZ Daily--we were, after all, miles and miles from anywhere), this same MARTIN stood up to introduce me.  Turns out he was the Center Director!

So he says, "James will talk for 40 minutes"--uh huh, that's usual--"and then he will take your questions"--no problem there, Standard Operating Procedure--"now, he has come all the way from America to be with us, so you can ask him anything you want, like what he thinks of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq"--Oh God!  No!  Could it get any worse?--"or how he feels about the relationship between Taiwan and Mainland China"--Yes!  It can get worse!

There are only two or three things that I have avoided discussing in depth with even my closest students, and this guy had not only found them, but had actually suggested that these total strangers ask me about them in a public forum!

But it got worse.  In fact the students did not ask me about these sensitive issues (their English wasn't up to it, or maybe their manners were better than MARTIN'S) but MARTIN wasn't going to let me go.  In the discussion of the Hero, one of my questions for the audience is "Who is a hero, and why?"  MARTIN'S contribution?  "Adolf Hitler is a hero, because he ruled his people strongly, and conquered other countries."

Shite! as they say in Scotland, where I've never been, but at that moment wished I was in, far away from MARTIN.

Dance, Fool, dance.

Well, I took him down as gently as I could, pointing out that heroes don't do things for themselves, but for others, and that Genghis, MARTIN'S countryman, had also "ruled his people strongly, and conquered other countries," but was only a hero to people like--well, like MARTIN, but I couldn't exactly say that, so I went to the "beloved of the people" argument, and if all of this is sounding evasive and inadequate, well, that's exactly how it went.

It was later, when the nice guy who had brought me there was walking me to the bus, that I managed to find some light in this trainwreck, to mix a metaphor.  When I told this guy what his "Direktor" had said about the Q & A session, Mr. Nice Guy did his best to keep his boss's face in place by saying, "Different people have different opinions."  Feeling tender, I pushed a bit, going on to the Hitler-as-hero story.  Well, said the Nice Guy, "words is words, and truth is truth."

Wow.  Hang onto that one, I thought.

Then, as an afterthought, he conceded that "MARTIN can be a little difficult sometimes."

Vindication.

********

More on salons, the end of the school year, an impending change in my domestic situation, Hong Kong, parties (both the usual kind and the Chinese Communist kind), and a major milestone tomorrow.
Posted 7/7/2004 at 12:20 AM

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March, 2004
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May, 2004
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