Tuesday, April 25, 2006

As we draw towards another holiday things are getting hectic again before they calm down. A great weekend meeting new people was followed yesterday by my first attempt at running an English speaking group, which, from my point of view went surprisingly well.

I didn't want to patronise but at the same time I was aware that by aiming too high and getting them to do things that they were uncomfortable with, the thing might crash before it had even got going so I prepared a few bits and pieces before the lesson.

We started with the usual introductions with a few twists by a getting each to tell me the most unusual things about where they come from. A real range of origins from the far west autonomous region where the Uiguir minority originate, to several from Szechuan and Hubei and a couple from the far East of the country. I also wanted them to tell me what their impressions of England were, not in order to trip them up but just to get them thinking. They had some unsurprising stereotypes with a few interesting things that I would never have thought of which they told me they had been taught when at school.

We talked about English food and a few authors and I got them to tell me all about their favourite dishes from China. The Chinese love to talk food!

I'd prepared a quiz for them about the UK which seemed to be the big hit of the day. It was more of an open discussion which was what the lessons are supposed to be about and it really got them to open up and chat freely. Their favourite was a round where I'd written several of the arcane laws of England which seem ridiculous today, and in with them I'd made up a few fake laws. They had to guess which was real and which made up. This also allowed me to introduce a few key parts of British life which will come in extremely handy in general conversation. For instance the whole class now knows about the Chelsea Pensioners and who Gordon Ramsey is (complete with smug photo - this was all done on the overhead).

I'd set up a slide show to run in the background when we were chatting in case conversation lulled (which it never seemed to) so that we could have something to talk about. However, having set this up on the computer and not had time to change it, I can say with almost 100% certainty that I'm the only physicist in Beijing who has pictures of the Queen, Radiohead, Big Ben and Old Trafford cycling through their screen saver. I'm still somewhat taken aback to see Tony Blair grinning at me whenever I look up from my books.

Anyway, a tiring but really enjoyable couple of hours which we will have every two weeks. The assignment for next time is to find an English poem to bring, read and discuss with the rest of the group, perhaps in smaller groups if there are too many people. Having read The Jabberwocky to them at the Spring Festival 'carnival' I may get them to dissect it!


I'm attempting to find a spare five minutes in which to write up the last few days of the trip but for now I will put some photos from the previous legs which I hadn't included before.

The sun poking through the Yangtze clouds.
One of the Gods of the underworld, presumably the God of matzos.
I mentioned previously that coffins hang precipitously in cliffs along the gorge, like this:
As we were being rowed in the sampans, a chap waded into the water and jumped on board seemingly to hitch a ride. It soon became apparent that this was a particularly industrious postcard seller with a completely captive audience - ingenious indeed.


Speaking of language I spent a little over an hour in one of the most depressing places in Beijing on Sunday afternoon. Between two train lines at Xizhimen there is a stretch of 50 yards or so where you walk in the open to get from one to the other. In this space there are the usual touts selling Beijing 2008 trinkets, puppies confined in vile cages, tortoises attempting to run away and pineapple stands selling freshly cut glistening fruit covered in dust and grime. In this particular place there is also a high density of 'fa piao' women and their call is a chilling one which turns my mind to numb jelly. Fa piao are fake receipts that you can buy for a few kuai in order to show your boss that you've been out for an expensive lunch and claim the money back. It's a fairly representative sales object in a place like Beijing but it's the manner in which it's advertised which is so horribly disturbing (to me at any rate). Women from the countryside come into the city to sell these tickets. They're ruddy faced and slightly chubby and in their 40s or 50s. Around 20 of them stand in the 50 yards between the two station and have a continuous metronomic chant of 'fa piao' that is so automatic as to feel like you're walking past a line of androids. The words are not in the Mandarin neutral tone but some numb tone which makes the world go grey and any light in your eyes dim as you walk by them. I pass this place very regularly and I've never seen anyone buy a single ticket. Occasionally the police ride by and the chant stops momentarily but just as quickly the drone is turned on and the waves of colourless desperation hit you as you go about your business.

It's mainly because I was sat there for an hour reading my book that I was so struck by it this time. I'd hoped to find a cafe to sit in but wandered around without luck for half an hour as my eyes became sore with the pollutants and my face turned to dust as the Gobi swished around my head. I shan't be making that mistake again.

and now for something completely different...

My work at the moment is focusing on one particular GUT (theory which unifies the three forces of the Standard Model) though currently I'm just attempting to reproduce some previous results (essentially just some group theory) so that when I come to the new model I should be able to get answers quickly. I'm not sure what direction this is going though as currently the point of this model isn't a phenomenological one, it's more an aesthetics angle. This is all well and good but aesthetics should never take precedent over testable results. Just because a model looks nice, if you can't test it, it's not really science. I'm being particularly cynical here and I think that the point will be eventually to make testable predictions but first things first so now we just have to build it (mathematically speaking). In fact I'm essentially offering myself to this project as a calculation monkey in the hope that I can learn some new skills and get another publication while I'm at it - everybody wins!

Been a good day today in all and this morning started with four citations for my previous work, a record. It should have been a less than productive day as I finally managed to doze off to sleep at six this morning, however, somehow the brain has been ticking along and I've gone at least some way in the right direction. Right, enough, to sleep.


Anonymous said...


Shanghai sounds fab - I was talking about it just yesterday over one of my many lunches before I leave the advertising world. Love the piccies - you should submit the one of bamboo against a white wall viewed through a lattice window to the BBC News site. Every week, they post up a selection of the best photos sent in and I'm sure that would make the cut. You may continue.

Unknown said...

Shanghai did seem great although I only got a brief glimpse at most of it. When you get out here we can take a trip down to scope it out in finer detail.

Cheers re. pics. I may submit one if I get the chance, would be nice to get one on the Beeb.

Benjamin said...

Hi Jonathan. Enjoying all this... quite a lot to catch up on. Your lecture on England sounds like a real success. Well done. I was wondering if you could maybe enlighten me here as to what preconceived ideas your Chinese students had of England?

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

I think the overall view I got was that England is supposed to be constantly wet, with ivy creeping up the side of every house, rolling green countryside and bad food. I tried to constrast each of these with counterexamples and they seemed to buy it. Oh, of course football and hooligans as well. Some of the most shocked Chinese people I've met have been those I've just told that I'm not a football supporter.

The less expected view was about Jews in England. I was asked if Jewish parents put honey on their children's text books so that they would study. I was surprised by this, partly because all the Chinese people I've met seem to have a real reverence for Jews as highly intelligent and motivated. I thought it would embarras the student if I mentioned my own faith at that point but explained briefly my opinions on the subject.

With a class of relatively open minded students I'm not sure what if any subjects are taboo. Certainly if this had been ten years ago, many subjects would have been off limits but I think that my audience would be more receptive now.

Unknown said...

Feel free to add an extra 's' where appropriate above.

Benjamin said...

Yes, well there's a lot of truth there I would say. Especially bad food! And quite interesting when you consider that football hooligans are such a tiny percentage of the population, one can see how the impact of news media spreads.

The Jewish honey thing is so quirky its funny. Thanks, Jon x