Breakfast in China

Say what you will about American food (comments such as: “there is no such thing”), breakfasts in the US, as in Europe, are certainly enjoyable affairs. There is much to be said for tearing into a pile of buttermilk pancakes swimming in maple syrup and butter and washed down with about four cups of strong black coffee (blogger wipes drool off of chin).

When I lived in Singapore, one of the facts of life my family could never become accustomed to were the Asian breakfasts. We never developed a taste for rice porridge or you tiao in the morning. Indeed on one trip to Malaysia the other restaurant patrons were  tickled pink to watch the foreigners carefully drink the black coffee off the top without stirring up the heavy sweet condensed milk on the bottom of the glass. (In case you are wondering why: Malay-style coffee is strong and served with condensed milk, black coffee seemed like quite the strange order.)

When living in China I learned to appreciate, and indeed to greatly enjoy, Chinese breakfasts (早餐). Granted, they are completely different from anything we are used to in the West. But, for those willing to take the plunge, they can be just as hearty (frequently moreso), and enjoyable as a stack of pancakes with a side of bacon.

Noodles for breakfast (面条): while many Americans might find this to be a bit of a stretch, a bowl of noodles in the morning can be just what the doctor ordered. The best part is, if done right, it is a different meal every time. Although you can make a basic oil, pepper and ground pork mix to use every time, you can also through in a dallop or two of leftovers from the night before. Strange as it may sound, it works and makes a great start to the day. On the street, every town has different types of local noodle specialties. In Guizhou, fresh hot Yang Rou Fen (羊肉粉) (thick round noodles with goat meat in spicy broth) will get a man’s heart started in the morning.

Steamed Buns (包子): Shanghai may be the most famous but every city has them, and they are fabulous. The best part of getting these in the lower Yangze area (around Shanghai) is the variety available. Get a mixed bag with meat, vegetable, and sweet cream fillings. Actually for those seeking a more “western” style taste, the sweet cream filling is very nice.

Dough sticks and soy milk (油条豆浆): Although arguably most famous in Taiwan, this too is a universally enjoyed breakfast treat. The dough sticks may resemble some types of crullers or doughnuts and in the sense that they are deep fried dough, that is correct. You Tiao (油条), however, are completely unsweetened. That is where the soy milk comes in. I like mine warm with a spoonful of coarse sugar. Dip the whole stick in the bowl, or else have the vendor chop it into chunks. Let them soak for a minute and slurp in down.

Rice Porridge (米粥): No one does it quite like the Cantonese and Hong Kong is the place to be to try this for breakfast. Rice is slowly cooked down with an excess of water, as well as chicken, pork, seafood or other stock and then jazzed up with preserved eggs (皮蛋), pork, green onions, shrimp, or just about anything you can imagine. A bowl of porridge will make you wonder why you ever thought oatmeal was good (no offense intended, I like oatmeal just fine – with raisins if possible).

In Guizhou there were several other types of breakfast munchies available including various deep fried pie-like items with meat or noodle fillings, as well as what we termed a Chinese breakfast burrito: a thin crepe smeared with tianmian jiang (甜面酱) and chili sauce, a whole green onion, and a you tiao rolled together. Sticky rice (糯米) with potato strings, pickled radish, pork, chili sauce and peanuts also hit the spot on the way to a 10 hour teaching marathon.

For those lucky enough to be in Beijing….

Jian Bing (煎饼): This is probably the best breakfast item in China. A crepe is freshly made on a charcoal heated portable griddle, smeared with tianmian jiang and (optional) chili sauce, sprinkled with scallions, and coated with a lightly fried egg. Get it from the various peddle carts around town – they usually gather at school or factory gates and around pedestrian overpasses and bus stops. At 2 RMB a pop, this breakfast absolutely cannot be beat.

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How hard is Chinese, really?

When I tell people in the US that I can speak Chinese the usual response is shock and amazement that someone could learn such a difficult language. Of course I must always disabuse them of any fantasies that my Chinese is somehow excellent, what with my garbled word order and faulty tones, but even then the compliments flow.

Chinese, like many of the languages which are currently in vogue (Arabic, Korean, Farsi, etc) has a reputation of being very difficult to learn. When compared with German or the Romance languages that Americans usually study, there is certainly something to be said for this. Afterall, English and German are related languages (English grew out of an early Germanic dialect) and English has a substantial Latin-based vocabulary we received via French. Hence a page of written French or Spanish will contain many many cognates.

Chinese, Arabic, Korea, Farsi….not so much. While there are some English-Chinese cognates like typhoon, tofu, gung ho, taipan, and a few in the other direction like Shāfā (sofa), Fútèjiā (vodka), Shālóng (salon), and Díshì (taxi), as a general rule learners must start from scratch.

(There is also the still debated question of whether or not the English expression “Long time no see” was actually transferred from Chinese – 好久不见 – via the Pidgin English spoken by the 19th century China traders and their Chinese comdradors)

So how hard is Chinese to learn? The great Jesuit missionary to the Ming court, Matteo Ricci said learning Chinese was semi-martyrdom. Although he was speaking of learning Classical Confucian Chinese, any student of the language will freely admit they have felt that way at least on occasion.

I typically give this warning to anyone interested in taking up the language.

1. If you study in the US, your classmates will mostly be heritage speakers, some already fluent and just looking for an easy”A.”

2. If you study in China, don’t do it in Beijing or Shanghai. There are too many other foreigners to hang out and speak English with as well as English speaking Chinese. You will get far less practice or immersion than you would otherwise think.

3. For the first three or four semesters (or first year of intensive study) you will feel as though you are making no progress and that you are just as incapable as you were when you started. It is only then that you mount a VERY steep learning curve and in the space of a few months go from beginner to highly conversant.

4. DO NOT SLACK OFF ON THE TONES!!! I followed my lazy inclination and focused on sounding fluent and just trying to talk. It worked but my tones are more or less irreparably screwed up. Do not do this to yourself. No matter how hard it seems in the beginning, emphasize getting the tones right!

5. Practice writing every day. The written language takes enormous amounts of practice in order to master it. Grasp every chance to practice reading and writing your characters. Make flashcards, tape post-its around your apartment, keep a character notebook and practice any time you get a spare minute. It will pay off.

That all being said, Chinese is actually a lot of fun to learn. Moreover, your efforts will be greatly appreciated in China. Knowing even a little of the language unlocks so much more of the culture, history, and society than can ever be conveyed through English language signs and guidebooks.

That and it is nice to be able to get hotel rooms in the budget hotels where no one speaks English….


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Concerning travel websites

One thing there is plenty of in the world today is travel websites. One thing there is a decided lack of is some degree of regulation or formal editorial process which vets these sites for accuracy, validity, timeliness, and of course, lack of bias. A good number of websites are run by companies with strong pecuniary interests in encouraging you to make a certain trip or, obviously, to buy a specific package. Others are more subtle and do not seem to be directly advertising their or others’ wares, yet their information is vague, overly sunny and generally unclear.

Then there is the granddaddy of them all – Wikitravel. I for one, for the sake of full disclosure, am a Wikitravel contributor, to the China page, as well as several others. I am a strong supporter of the wiki project – wikipedia, wikitravel, wiktionary, wikibooks, etc. I believe that the collective mind of the world concentrating on a single task with no vested interests (monetary anyway) in the outcome is an excellent way for providing and expanding human knowledge. The masses working on a single project are also beneficial in that their numbers are sufficient that whenever a hot head gets in there and makes a mess of things, it is generally corrected quite rapidly.

This does not apply so much to some of the areas of wikitravel that I haunt. While the China page is heavily monitored and edited with a core of about 10-20 contributors who make sure it stays more or less on track, many of the smaller regional pages are decidedly lacking. Part of the reason is a lack of contributors to these pages. A further difficulty is for lack of a critical mass of contributors, there will be less content, it will be far more subjective, and it will not likely be updated as frequently as a site like wikitravel must in order to live up to its niche market of providing absolutely up-to-date travel information. This may sound like a quibble but it is significant if a traveler is interested in using wikitravel in lieu of traditional guidebooks.

Another interesting facet of wikitravel is some of its pages tend to get ripped off and posted on other websites. I have seen this happen with the Guiyang page, for example.

Original text:

Copy: (word for word)

Copy: (spread over several pages – they give wikitravel the credit for the images, however):

This is fine since wikitravel is not proprietary, yet it begs the question then of who is vetting this material before spreading it around the Internet? Where the information is good, current and reliable, then there is no problem. What happens for more obscure pages (like Guiyang) where the information does not have armies of editors constantly tweaking it and driving it toward the golden mean?

The general point is that the Internet is a great introduction to travel in China and there is a wealth of information available. However, we must be cautious and look at the motivations of the people who created the various travel sites (ie: are they using rose-colored glasses in order to sell their tour products), as well as check to see if companies which ostensibly are professional lack the creativity to write their own text (see above – the China Travel Guide website did the same thing with Guiyang and Zunyi as well, but they credit wikipedia and wikitravel:

Text also appears to have been cut and repasted here:

For all those cutting and pasting text on the Internet, I say, good on you. Read around and study a bit. But maybe…just maybe…then write it in your own words!

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What it is…and isn’t…safe to talk about

When I was teaching in the spring of 2008, the countdown to the Olympics was interrupted by massive protests in Tibet. Naturally, the world divided up along the usual lines: westerners hung on the Dalai Lama’s every word and fumed about the mean Chinese. The Chinese fumed about how ungrateful the Tibetans seemed for all the subsidies, investment and massive economic and quality-of-life improvements brought to the region. But most of all, my students – or at least the politically astute among them – wanted to know why Westerners loved the Dalai Lama so much.

Err….next question.

Essentially, I learned over the years that my role as a teacher in China absolutely is not to try to educate the “benighted” Chinese and show them the light. That would be extremely racist and chauvinistic on my part. Not that this stops many Westerners in China who have somehow convinced themselves that it is their God-given mission to spread the “fruits” of Western civilization to a “backward” and “uneducated society”. One coworker said, repeatedly, that his mission was to “civilize” the Chinese. Not for me. My mission as a teacher is to teach English, to improve my students’ abilities to use the language. Whatever else they want to know – sensitive or otherwise – they can then look up for themselves.

Getting involved in the nastier debates about China’s domestic and foreign policies is a fast way not only to lose the respect of your students but also to, potentially anyway, land oneself in a lot of trouble. The fact is, contrary to popular belief, the Chinese – especially those one will encounter in universities or among those studying English at a comparatively high level – are not ignorant about the rest of the world. Nor are they automatons who whole-heartedly accept State propaganda. The modern generation in China is very skeptical of the claims and statements of their government (see some of the translated BBS feeds at

At the same time, however, the current generation is profoundly nationalistic. They love their country and are deeply proud of its long history and its recent accomplishments in reducing poverty, raising living standards and preserving its complete autonomy. Criticism of China, especially that in favor of Tibetan autonomy, is often interpreted as a direct affront to the nation and its long hard struggle to raise itself out of its centuries-long stupor.

In general, we can assume there are a few topics one should avoid discussing in your class: Tibet and Taiwan are the biggest. The matter of the Uighurs is also somewhat sensitive and probably best left alone. Other than these, really, there is no limit to what you can talk about. Even problems with the government such as corruption, illegal land seizures, and the like are relatively safe so long as you don’t pontificate. Everyone has their own stories to share in these areas.

Of course, to be safe you can also stick to topics related to your home country. Say whatever you want, for good or ill, if it is about your country, no one will really have much to say against you.

That all being said, the take home lesson is if your students want to talk about these sensitive issues, explain that the classroom is not a proper setting and perhaps arrange another time to discuss these issues. And when you share your perspective, be sure to listen more than you speak. You will learn much more that way, and we may actually get a degree of cross-cultural communication.

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Teaching “Little Emperors”

This will not be a long post as there really is not much to say. In my years teaching in China I noticed that we foreign teachers love to complain about our students, how they never listen, never do their homework, never practice, don’t pay attention or participate in class, and then the parents blame us – the foreign teachers – when their child fails their English exam at the end of the term. We try to hold back Junior and make him repeat the level but that never works because she enough, he will be passed up to the next level.

We often attribute these behaviors – and the parental response of assuming the teacher must be at fault – to the fact that the children are spoiled little emperors for whom life is being paved with gold in front of their feet – by their long-suffering parents. The facts are we protest too much:

Fact Number One: to reach a “Little Emperor” is no different from reaching any other student. They must feel interested and motivated in class. This is no small task given the monumental difficulty there is in making children take an interest in classes in which they have no interest and have been told they have no choice but to study.

Fact Number Two: Parents pay a serious premium to have their children taught by foreigners. When their children fail to learn it is decidedly frustrating so naturally the inclination is to blame the unknown party. This is not a defense of the Little Emperor, more just a human reaction.

Fact Number Three: Most of our students have no interest in coming to these classes whatsoever. No matter how good the curriculum is, it will not make them learn. Thus our responsibility is to make class as interesting and engaging as possible – even if sometimes this means we must act the fool or let the children have more fun than learning.

But then, of course, sometimes some kids are just jerks….

One final note, it is important to remember that many of the worst behaved spoiled Little Emperors act this way because they are simply completely lost in class. They have been passed up a few times and thus have no idea what is going on. It is not your fault, but neither is it entirely theirs’ if their parents continue to pressure schools to pass them up into classes for which they are not prepared. In any teaching environment, we must be ready to whip out extra effort and new skills in order to reach students who have already been left behind. Too often, these students who need the most help are the ones we despise the most….sad.

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About the “Little Emperors”

Anyone who reads the newspapers or even watches the international part of the evening news is aware of China’s “one-child policy.” Whatever you make think of the policy, it has been very effective at very rapidly curbing the growth of China’s population. It also produced a very large population bulge (meaning a large number of young people enter the workforce in a 30 year period when they are not having as many children, hence they have few seniors and few dependents to provide for) which is a major structural factor in China’s rapid economic growth.

An added impact of the “one-child policy” has been the creation of a generation of only-children. In the context of rising wealth (akin to what happened in our baby boomer generation), parents have given their children the goods things in life they mostly were unable to enjoy. Arguably this has given birth to a generation of spoiled “Little Emperors.”

Demographically it only makes sense that “Little Emperors” would emerge when the family structure went from having large families to small nuclear ones in a single generation. Hence it is not uncommon to have four grandparents and two parents doting on a single child. Naturally with this much attention lavished upon him/her one would expect the child to develop a sense of entitlement.

We should not, however, believe that life is a candy shop for these only-children. If being the sole focus of attention means being showered with gifts and pampered, it also means the hopes, dreams and indeed financial future of the family rides on their shoulders. There are no brothers or sisters to take up the slack. If junior fails, the whole family is worse off. Hence these children are under enormous pressure to succeed academically. Academic success is still – although there are rumors and stirrings of reform – determined almost entirely by performance on standardized tests taken before high school (at age 14-15) and before university (at age 17-18). Little Emperors must score in the highest rankings if they are to place into elite (and therefore capable of training for the next exams) schools or universities.

One can only imagine the pressure placed on a 17 year old who knows their performance on a single test (the three-day Gao Kao University Entrance Exam).

That all being said, having Little Emperor’s in one’s class is not the most enjoyable situation. You can usually spot the would-be trouble makers. For some reason they were often a little bit overweight….

For strategies for dealing with “Little Emperors” and other trouble makers, tune in next time, same bat time, same bat channel…

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A few thoughts on teaching

For many travelers, an easy way to remain in the Middle Kingdom without breaking the bank is to teach. The Web is full of recruiter sites, ESL pages, message boards, job listings, etc, all claiming they can help you find your dream job in China, and of course use said dream job to support your wanderlust.

At this point I will first make my shameless plug for Middle Kingdom Life ( Anyone interested in a frank (perhaps too frank and occasionally overly jaded but mostly fair) assessment of life as a teacher in China would do well to start by reading through their online guide to teaching. The website includes guides to the education system, a crash course (and I mean crash) in ESL, and detailed sections on moving, adjusting, and dating. The Website carries one overriding theme, however, which is DO NOT COME TO CHINA UNLESS YOU REALLY REALLY MEAN IT!!

Having lived and taught in China for several years and seen at least five “midnight runners” along with the usual host of…interesting…folks who work in ESL in China, I can say that they have a point. If you go into a teaching gig expecting to have a zero-pressure job and endless free time (and cash) to spend indulging your travel habit, that is just not true. Increasingly ESL in China is becoming competitive and employers are demanding more than just having their teachers show up relatively conscious for work. Still, a savvy teacher-traveler can see local sites around their chosen city two or three days each week, and make bigger trips during their paid holidays. Of course these are at the same time everyone else is traveling but the crowds are part of the experience.

If you decide to go into teaching in China, try to keep the following in mind:

1. You are a guest on a work visa. Therefore, your employer owns you. Don’t give him/her any reason not to like you. In the old days you could pack up and leave discretely in the middle of the night (hence the term “midnight runner”), show up in another province and land a job, secure a new visa and residence permit, and no one was the wiser. Today, the provincial Public Security Bureau (PSB) offices are on a common network and share data. Hence if you bolted without being legally released from your contract, good luck getting your new city’s PSB to secure you a new visa.

2. Treat education like factory work: I found that if I treated my classes the way a workman on a line treats his job, it massively increased my productivity, job satisfaction, and the students’ enjoyment. Each day I have a “quota” of what my students must learn. As on the factory line, I get a bonus if more is done. Like many factories, I am encouraged to think of new and creative ways of accomplishing my quota. The more times I fill or surpass my quota, the easier work becomes, and the happier my students (and employer) are.

3. Travel time is fun time: on your days off, it is fine to live like expats in China live (that is, in a drunken fog), but not when working or the night before work. Travel is fun because then you can indulge for an extended period, no questions, no guilt. Live it up then. Dali, in Yunnan, is a particularly fun town for living it up with other expats on leave.

4. Understand that the customer is always right – and you are not the customer: in private language schools, the customer is neither you, nor the students. The parents are the customers. They must be kept happy at all costs so they keep writing tuition checks. If you find little Timmy is absolutely incorrigible, there is probably little you can do about it. He won’t get kicked out, nor will he fail and be held back. It is best to accept and move on with your teaching.

5. Support each other: too often there is disharmony among the foreigners or between foreign and local staff. This should not be! We should have proletarian unity! In all seriousness, any school where the staff is divided will not be a pleasant place to work. Let’s try to get along – we can control the students better that way (and get more of their parents’ money!)

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