Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Kingdom of Sharks - Available Now!

It's a bad start to one's career: Alone in a foreign country, broke, homeless, living on borrowed time with an expired visa. That was just the start of one teacher's sojourn through the People's Republic of China. It started in an enclave of the social elite, winding through isolated farming villages before concluding in a burgeoning financial center. And at each stop, a sea of friendly, smiling faces - the smile of a predator longing to tear off a piece for himself. This is the Middle Kingdom, a place where business is savage and nothing is free of its influence - not even education.

KINGDOM OF SHARKS is an account of the Chinese education system, as experienced by one of the thousands of people who travel abroad to teach English as a Second Language every year. It is divided into two parts - one in the northern city of Changchun, the other in the southern city of Suzhou - and follows the author as he moves between various companies, chronicling the corruption and abuse he witnessed as he moved across the country.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

To Any Who Stumble Across This Relic...

The new blog is here. It contains most of this blog's posts plus new material.

If you're interested in Kingdom of Sharks, go here.



Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kingdom of Sharks

A note for anyone who stumbles across this blog. I'm pitching a book on the business and educational system of China, called Kingdom of Sharks. The manuscript is being posted at Authonomy, a writer's site run by HarperCollins UK. You can check it out here. If you really like it, make an account so you can back me and leave comments. Thanks.


Friday, August 21, 2009

What Happened

It is well known that the government of the People's Republic of China practices Internet censorship. In general, there are three reasons why the Chinese government will block a website or domain:

1.) The site contains controversial political information, particularly when it contradicts the official positions of the government.

2.) It is a foreign web site offering services which put it in direct competition with similar sites based in China (i.e. trade protectionism).

3.) The material of the site is deemed damaging to morality.

The Blogger service was blocked in May of this year. My guess is that this was connected to the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests, which inspired widespread blocking (the Typepad blogging service was blocked shortly thereafter).

No firewall is perfect, and I had little trouble getting around the blocks by using proxies - websites which hide the origins of a site by accessing it through an intermediary. However, sending data back and forth across a proxy is a very bad idea. The proxy, by its very nature, bypasses security measures on the user's computer. Consequently, obtaining passwords and personal information sent across is very easy. Additionally, proxies go down all the time - I had at least six proxies either stop functioning or get blocked themselves. So maybe I had more than "little trouble" after all.

The nature of the firewall can be quite amusing at times. In early August, the Comics Curmudgeon - a completely non-political website focusing on bad newspaper comics - was blocked for about a day. Why? The author wrote about an Apartment 3-G storyline involving the Dalai Lama. Apparently, just mentioning his name was enough to get it shot down. This suggests that the PRC uses word filters similar to those employed in schools.

But that is for the experts to discuss. I have returned, and it is time for my next adventure. Farewell, all.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Springtime-Fresh Photodump

Happy, cheery photos ahead!

Pictures from a track-and-field day, arranged before May Day.

After the first good rain, the scenery started to bloom. Here are some early buds.

The warm weather also brought out the street vendors. This pet seller was around on May Day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I haven't written in a while. There are various reasons for this, but one of the bigger ones is that I have simply been busy. Busier than usual, in fact. Here's the story:

Today I do not have classes. In the morning, the office called me to tell me that I might be teaching substitution classes in the afternoon. A few hours ago, I saw that they were trying to call me. I turned off my phone and left the apartment.

I suppose I should feel bad about doing this. I don't.

I should set the stage for this. The semester begins in March. Before that, I get called into the office for a meeting. After being ignored for half an hour (not at all uncommon), one of my bosses finally decides to tell me why I've been called in. Essentially, this is what I am told: that they do not have confidence in my teaching skills, that they are only keeping me on because I am American, that they are sending me to small, Podunk schools to minimize the damage I may cause, and that they will be calling me in on a regular basis to explain not only what I have done in my classes but what I will be doing so that they know that I am not screwing up. They obviously used much softer language, but I'm not a child. I think the above is an accurate representation of what I was told.

Then the semester starts. The first week, I'm called in to fill in for another teacher. The next week, they do it again. Ditto the third week. To my recollection, I've been asked to do extra classes every week since the semester started. They sent me to one school which they claimed (in the aforementioned meeting) lodged complaints about me. On several occasions they assigned me to teach small children. I have received calls asking me to teach extra classes during my regular classes. Once, I turned off the ringer on my phone and later discovered that they called me no fewer than seven times trying to give me extra classes.

Consider those two paragraphs carefully. Something is very wrong with this picture.

Last semester I did not have a regular schedule so I was routinely dropped into substitution classes. I suspect that they are still used to this and seem to have forgotten that I now have a full regular schedule. Perhaps it's far simpler than that, and they think I'm the kind of sap who will do whatever they ask without complaints. That would certainly explain the bizarre phone calls asking me to track down other teachers in the building.

But enough of that. I should explain what substitution classes are like, as I have never gone into much detail. I will be given essentially no information on the classes in advance. The office will not tell me the level of the class, the size, or what they have been learning. Usually the school itself will be new to me. I never know the actual teacher, so I can't get any help from him or her. When I arrive, I am taken right to the first classroom. The teachers there will ask me what I have prepared, evidently unaware that I have known about this class for only about three hours.

The class begins. These are city students – better off than the country kids I am used to. The class itself is far larger, possibly topping 70 students. In all likelihood, they did not pay much attention to their regular teacher, and they will not be doing me any favors. Sometimes a local teacher will be present to help. If I am alone, I have essentially no hope of controlling the class. I introduce myself. No one pays attention. I start in on the lesson. No one pays attention. If I am lucky, there may be a few students in the front of the class who want to chat. Otherwise, I simply stand awkwardly at the front of the class and watch the clock tick down. Repeat three times, go home.

These classes are invariably terrible. I have had exactly one (out of perhaps dozens) that was decent. Every sub class since then has hewn strictly to the above models. It doesn't matter, though. Neither the office nor the school is judging me. I'm just filling space. The company gets paid when their teachers are present. That's the real reason I'm there.

And that's why I don't feel guilty about blowing off those classes. I'm not shaping young minds when I do sub classes, I'm acting as a seat filler for a company that has treated me with profound disrespect and deep dishonesty since I first started working for them. Maybe they'll get upset, but there's not much they can do. They won't fire me; they can't. I'm their best sap.

I did not write this to troll for pity. I want to give everyone a little peek behind the curtain. To show people how businesses work here. My story is neither unique nor exceptional – horror stories far worse than mine abound in this business. This is here to give you pause before you, too, embark on an “adventure of a lifetime.” This is also here to inform everything else I've written. Not every experience has been bad, but the worst ones – the lies and betrayals from people I trusted – have wounded deep.

Happier posting to follow, hopefully.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Trust Issues

One thing I've noticed is that the Chinese are paranoid. People (including me) like to make jokes about how Americans are scared of everything, but those same gags could fly here as well. It's not the bars on first-floor windows in relatively nice neighborhoods that convinced me of this, nor was it the electronic controlled-access gates in front of every school. It's this: fingerprint scanners so that school administrators know when the teachers arrive and leave. Talk about lack of trust.

What gets me about things like this is that none of the teachers I've worked with have been particularly dishonest. Anytime I've been lied to, it hasn't been the rank-and-file doing the lying. But then, a quick trip through the archives here will verify that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


There was an earthquake here a few days ago. I didn't feel it, and I wouldn't have known about it had it not been for the people who told me (I was at a school at the time). No damage was done, though Orchid was a bit concerned when I didn't respond to the text message she sent later that night. Understandable, I suppose.

That's pretty much my "I lived through an earthquake story": I didn't notice. Still, that's the kind of thing that throws off one's schedule. I actually have a lot to write about right now, it just might be a few days before it goes up.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Learning Curves

My Chinese teacher used to complain about the book we used on a regular basis. She slagged it on pretty much everything - grammar, vocabulary, the order of the lessons. Having worked with textbooks in Chinese schools, I'm becoming less and less sympathetic to her complaints. The content is truly surreal, particularly in regards to the difficulty curves.

The easiest way to explain what I mean is to give examples. The following are sequential chapters in a book intended for Grade 1 senior high school students (roughly the equivalent of high school juniors):

1.) Festivals

A chapter on holidays around the world. A decent introduction for students at this level.

2.) Healthy foods

A chapter about food and diet. Pretty straightforward, practical stuff.

3.) Mark Twain

...say again?

I was utterly stumped by this. The third chapter in the book is dedicated to a Mark Twain stage play. Really, guys? Most of these kids have just learned how to string sentences together. You want them reading Twain?

Oh wait, it gets better:

4.) Astronomy

Astronomy! As in the movement of planets and asteroids, the formation of stars, black holes, etc. Here's a thought experiment: imagine a basic level science course you took in high school or college. Now, imagine that the instructor is teaching in Spanish. Fun times, huh?

Some of the other books are equally surreal. A slightly more advanced book has, as its second chapter, a section on robotics. Robotics!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


This is fairly trivial, but I've started another blog to contain study materials and discussion topics for my college classes. There's really nothing there right now and it only truly exists to have my resources in one place, but if you are really interested in what I am teaching then you can find out about it there. Here's the link.