Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Well Deserved Break - My Side Projects

Ever since the local chapter of the United Nations has recessed, my free time has increased to a level that I haven’t had in many years. With increased free time, there comes an increased amount of fidgety boredom so I have taken on a few little side projects to pass the time. As much as I love reading, I have to get out of bed periodically. Since there is nothing on television, I have taken on several little side projects. All of these seem to center around the same thing - my knowledge of English, but all are unique in their own little ways. The people of the hotel have always hinted around me helping them out with some various language related issues. Their ‘hinting’ reminds me of a child trying to score some candy from another kid without actually asking for it.

“Hey… uh … what’s that?”

“English.”

“Really?…. uh… How does it work?”

“Well, you speak or write it.”

“I’ve never had any English…. I’ve always wondered how it would work, but I don't have any way to learn it.”

“Well, if you’d like, I can help you with your English.”

“That’d be ok I suppose, ….I mean, …it’s no big deal.”

Actually, I’ve told the hotel staff on several occasions that I would be more than willing to help out with anything language related, little did I know, they would take me up on it. In America, you can make offers like this, knowing full well that no one will ever actually take you up on it, I call these statements Smart Promises. There is no such thing as a Smart Promise in Big Red.

First through the gates were hotel documents. Seemingly easy because I could just mark up the problems while I drank beer and giggled like a little girl. Because this is an ‘international’ hotel, all documents in the joint are in English and Chinese. I’m sure the Chinese is good, but the English is hilarious at best. Part of me wants to leave the documents alone just so that the other foreigners have the same entertainment opportunity as I have had. Much like the Chinese work force, the pool of document material is bottomless, there is absolutely no way I could do a complete overhaul of the highly entertaining aspect of the hotel. Whether it is the hundreds of signs around the hotel with words out of order or misspelled, the Internet connection directions, the weekly housekeeping poems or the services directory, the fact is, Chinese just doesn't translate to English very well, and the results are spectacular. Here are a couple of my favorite examples.

This hotel has an indoor driving range and putting green. It is unbelievably expensive, something to the tune of $50 USD an hour, but the flyer clearly states that it is “$120 RMB per hour for a practice beating.” That’s pretty cheap, I usually pay double that for my beatings, but then again, it is only for practice (ok, my comment isn’t very funny, but it’s all I could think up). At some point, this document was put in front of me and I corrected it in about three minutes, all for the cost of a cup of coffee (which is equal to the cost of flying to Columbia and getting it your damn self), however, to date, these changes have not been reflected in the fliers.

Over the course of a week, I was presented with all of the hotel restaurant menus and asked for help correcting them. It was quite a fun experience; these little guys spell like shit. If you look in an English dictionary, you can see the words are usually spelled out phonetically based on English phonetics, but China uses a completely different phonetic schema, so the words come out in various forms. They usually get most of the letters right, or maybe the correct number of letters, but they’re never in the right order, often mixed with the England versions and American versions. Most foreigners would have no problems with the menu, but the hotel is still concerned about getting these things correct to make them look more professional, and rightly so. They could send it to any American second grade class for corrections and it would turn out better than it is.

After getting into the menu a little more, I realized that there were more problems than just misspellings. They actually confuse food items quite a bit. The hotel manager politely informed me that I didn't know the difference between broccoli and cauliflower. The also have problems with bamboo shoots, asparagus and kale, but who am I to judge, vegetables are all the same to me.

To take it a step further, I have been asked questions as to why much of the menu is avoided by foreigners altogether. The problem is simple (to foreigners) – many of the restaurant menu items do not translate very appetizingly. Not many honkeys order the Sizzling Fish Head, Swallow Saliva Soup, or Eel Intestines in Blood Sauce. Even though I have eaten both of these dishes, I would have never ordered them on my own. The name just doesn't do the taste justice. I have been challenged to help make the English versions of normal Chinese dishes sound more appetizing. I have suggested using tantalizing adjectives to try and sugarcoat the disgusting nature of Chinese food. Succulent Sizzling Fish Head, Tasty Swallow Saliva Soup and General Mao’s Bang-tangular Eel Intestines in The Blood of Capitalists are sure to turn some heads.

I have also taken advantage of my menu translation time to discuss the absurd price of coffee in the restaurant. One cup of fresh coffee is 45 RMB (about $4.25 USD). This is a cup only on the most technical sense of the word, it is cup-shaped and holds liquid, but it only holds about 6 ounces and they only fill about two-thirds up. You’re paying about $1 an ounce. I told Hatchet Harmony, the Western Bar manager hag, that an extra-large coffee at Starbucks in Beijing is only 24 RMB. She told me, in the same cold defensive manner she told me I don't know my vegetable identification, that their coffee is better, that’s why it costs so much more. They’re so dismissive when you start comparing their hotel to pesky things like facts. My only response was that foreigners will not buy their coffee, ever. I will stand by this statement forever; every foreigner that I talk to says that it’s obscenely priced. I have begun to prove this point by buying the same instant coffee at the grocery store and carrying it around in my backpack everywhere I go, right next to my mouse and camera. This includes carrying it down to the restaurants. The hotel provides hot water and spoons for free, so I can sit at my table and drink coffee for hours on end without paying the ridiculous prices. This has sent waves of panic and anger through the staff, actually just Hatchet. She could be one of the most greedy people in the country and hates the fact that I do not buy coffee there. I’m saving about 300 yaks a week, plus I am given extreme pleasure from pissing her off, it’s a win-win situation.

I also spent some time working with Liu, the front desk hottie that I never talk to anymore, on correcting a document that explains how to get on the Internet. I took a copy of the document and started marking it up, but it was so bad and confusing that I just rewrote the entire thing for them on the spot. Their document was like reading an encrypted map to an ancient civilization. It took me about 15 minutes, complete with screenshots (everyone likes pictures). That one got me free lunch.

One of the greatest pleasures I have is the looks in the management’s eyes when I tell them that signs are misspelled. Signs in the hotel are probably not cheap. Most are engraved brass, neon or carved wood (not neon wood of course - neon signs and carved wood signs). That means that they were likely special ordered and slightly more expensive than the photocopied coffee shop menus. The thing is, as entertaining as the thought of a Cloak Room is, most people in the world no longer wear cloaks, outside of Anne Rice novels. Low ceilings with signs that say ‘Be Care Your Head’, while they do get the point across, often cause more casualties from people pointing and laughing at them and actually forgetting that they’re walking under a low ceiling. Bonk.

I have also been asked to teach English to the son one of the hotel managers. This kid and his friend are 11 years old and we sit in the lobby once a week and try to speak English to each other. It is very difficult, mainly because I don't know how to teach English to foreign children. Where do you start? I usually start with numbers, which they understand pretty well (much better than my understanding of Chinese numbers). We talk about colors and animals and usually end up frustrated and stopping. Plus, it always ends up with his mother and a couple more of the hotel managers standing around us, watching me, which makes me really uncomfortable. It makes me feel like a stand-up comedian who has forgot his bit and just stands there, silent and sweating, under the hot spotlight, tugging at my tie around my neck and sweating profusely. These kids have no desire to learn English even though his mother really wants him to learn. The one thing I do know about teaching, you can't teach the unwilling, so it’s turned into a grand waste of time. These classes have been cancelled due to lack of interest in both parties.

I was recently approached by gay-Tony and forced to stand through another excruciating conversation with him. This one about helping him with housekeeping English lessons. He is the ‘professor’ to the housekeeping department, which explains their horrible English.

“Luksa, I teach the housekeeping staff English.” He spittled at me.

“That explains why they can't understand a damn thing I tell them.”

“You have been helping out in the hotel and I would like you to help with my English class. We usually have the class one day on the weekends from 4:30 to 8:00 pm.”

“You’d think you would be able to accomplish more in three and a half hours. I would enjoy helping, just tell me when your next class is and if I don't have any plans, I’ll be there.”

“Luksa, I would like to know when you’re available and I’ll set up the class then.”

“Just tell me when you’re having your class and I’ll try to make it.” My schedule is shaky at best; one thing I’ve learned here is not to make plans because there is about a 176% chance that they’ll be changed in some way.

“How about this weekend?” He stammered out to me.

“When? I can’t promise you anything; my job and personal life have to come first. Remember, I’ve got a girlfriend now and I must concentrate all efforts on getting her pants off”

“How about Saturday from 4:00 to 7:00 pm?”

“Just schedule your class man and tell me when it is. If I’m available, I’ll be there, but I can't make any promises now.”

A couple days later, he asked me if I would be able to attend. Of course, by that time, my schedule had changed and I would be unable to go. I apologized and told him that maybe next week.

“Luksa, I hope you can attend, I told them you would be there and it makes me look bad. You said you would be there and you are going back on your word.”

My head snapped and my lips started forming words before I could stop them. “Listen dick, I don't give a fuck about you looking bad. I’m volunteering my time to you and you’re trying to give me a guilt trip? You sound like my ex-girlfriend. You can go to hell man.” This guy is the source of more painful conversations than anyone I have ever met in my life and he’s been wearing pretty thin on me for weeks now.

“Luksa, I’m sorry, I’m not trying to upset you. But you said…”

“I said I would try, but my job comes first, no matter what that means to you. I’m a paying guest of this hotel and you’re a prick for trying to pull this shit on me. You’re lucky I don't go to your boss about your attitude.”

I walked off, leaving him standing there, either stunned or confused; I’m guessing the latter. There’s one side project I can mark off my list.

In addition to my knowledge of the English language, my size and striking agility have been put to good use. In an effort to put all of my differences to some sort of a use, I have begun to help the Langfang Junior High School Chinese Kung Fu class on their basketball skills a couple times a week. This is nothing official of course, but they seem to be finishing up their practice about the time I cash my first free throw on most evenings (after missing my first fifteen). There are always five to ten of the kids that hang around after practice patiently waiting to have a go at taking it to the rack against the cracker. I remember when I first started playing basketball, in the third grade in Cheney Kansas; I couldn't make a lay-up to save my life. It took several weeks of training from my (English speaking) coach to get my footing down right. I already knew the basics of dribbling and traveling and it was still a bitch for me. These kids don't know how to dribble, have no idea what traveling is and speak absolutely no English. To date, only one of the kids has performed a legal lay-up. But it’s great fun and they like it when I swat the ball away from their friends.

Several people have contacted me via email from around the world who are interested in teaching English in China. I’m not sure how they have found me, but I always correspond with them as much as they like. Most of them are insecure unattractive women about 24 years old who feel like ‘making a difference’. They just want to know if they should teach in Taipei, Beijing or Shanghai. I tell them all pretty much the same thing - beats me, they’re all basically the same; overpopulated and polluted and joined in their common skepticism of white people. I too once thought I could make a difference, I have since realized that I need to concentrate on making a difference out of myself. If you think that helping people learn English is going to make a difference in your life, you better not even waste your money on a passport. People in general, especially in this country, will take advantage of you. The real world is risky territory for people with generosity of spirit.

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