Published 2006-09-22

I think I’m entering the phase of culture shock where daily life has become mundane. It is no longer surprising or fun to ride with daredevil taxi drivers, or drink hot soy milk, or get stared at, or eat tentacles. The big events in our lives revolve (as in Portland) around work and Bismarck. I never liked those blogs that seem like endless recycling of daily trivia, office politics, or pets. I never wanted to write one of those blogs.

On the other hand, my boring daily life is now happening in China which some of you might find interesting. So a typical day for me might look something like this:


The alarm goes off around 5:30. (As in Portland) I’m always the first out of bed. I have a lazy dog and a sleepy wife. I change into a pair of shorts and sandals [When did I start wearing sandals? Around the time I moved to the tropics.] and wake up Bismarck. I gently remind Jenny that I’m taking B out for his morning walk and she should get up so we’re not running late when I get back at 6:30.

Bismarck and I walk to the small playground about a block from our house. This is his favorite spot for evacuations. Before 6:00 there are seldom any people at the park, but if there are, they are deeply fascinated by the act of picking up a dog’s poop. They cannot see any reason why someone who lives a block from a park and uses it twice a day would not want it full of dog crap.

We walk about one more block to the entrance to Huweishan Park, a sort of mini Forest Park that sprawls across the hill behind our house. The locals call these hills “mountains,” by the way, which is really stretching. In the mornings, the only people in the park are health nuts. Chinese health nuts are nothing like American health nuts. They don’t wear spandex or sneakers, for example. It’s not unusual to see women “jogging” through the park wearing skirts and clutching transistor radios and plastic shopping bags with little snacks. Old men climb up on the rocks overlooking the city and howl at the top of their lungs, on the theory that this “clears the lungs.” Other popular Chinese exercises:

  • Walking backwards
  • Slapping yourself on the neck, upper arms, chest or buttocks
  • Synchronized martial arts -slash- ballroom dancing
  • Badminton
  • Shuffling in a motion similar to jogging, but really slowly
  • Standing very still and breathing loudly
  • A game similar to hackey sack, but using an object similar to a large shuttlecock instead of a sack

We walk through the park, and return through one of three neighborhoods: to the east through Shiting Lu, to the northwest through an older, run-down neighborhood without a name, or to the southwest through a gypsy camp. These are all equally interesting, although it’s a little unnerving crossing through the gypsy camp. Everyone does it, but you’re basically walking through someone’s living room.

I get back around 6:30 or 6:45, perform my three S’s, and get my things ready for school. Usually this means dumping a few songs on my iPod and getting a stack of hanzi flashcards to study on the bus ride. Breakfast usually consists of a [ banana | mango | pineapple ] smoothie, toast or muesli, and copious green tea.

Before I moved to China I entertained romantic notions of dumping coffee for tea. This has pretty much happened, abated by the Absolute Best Tea I Have Ever Drank (ABTIHED). It has about a third the caffeine of coffee which is just the right amount: enough to get me smart, but not enough to make me shake. But drinking tea, even ABTIHED, is a little bit like drinking hot water in which leaves have been soaking. You just can’t stand your fork in a cup a tea. So yeah, I’m drinking nothing but tea (...all day long...) but I really miss my morning coffee.

Around 7:30 we leave to catch the school bus.


One of the fascinating things about working at a school is how much it’s like going to school. For example, all the teachers ride a school bus from Xiamen Island (the downtown district) to Xinglin, a suburb on the mainland where the school is located. This is about a 30 minute trip in the mornings, and 45 minutes to an hour in the afternoons. I spend my bus time listening to iPod and practicing my hanzi (Chinese characters). Substitute “walkman” for “iPod” and “Spanish” for “hanzi” and that pretty much describes my school commute in, say, 7th grade. I load my iPod (a 1st gen shuffle) with about 20 completely random songs, and it’s faintly amazing how much of this music dates to the 80s or early 90s. So I even have the same soundtrack I had 20+ years ago.

My work day is has a constant level of low stress. Most of my morning is spent troubleshooting teachers’ IT problems (usually connectivity); I try to do as much of this via email or ICQ as possible. Early on I would run to the classroom to help in person but I saw so many variations of the same problems that I decided to write up the solutions in HOWTOs and post them to the school intranet. I have a few larger projects, like inventorying the school’s computers, and helping architect the network with the IT teacher and net admin. We’re dealing with a legacy network that had almost literally no security, so he’s having to take really basic steps, like giving every user a unique login. Because of the interesting way our school is organized, this is a much harder task than it should be. For example, nowhere is there a list of all the staff and students.

I would guess that school teachers have a lower rate of computer literacy than comparably paid and educated business professionals. (They’d be the first to say this, by the way. Almost daily I hear variations on “computers hate me,” a statement of powerlessness). This isn’t surprising when you consider 1) they don’t rely on computers for communication the same way as other professionals, 2) they aren’t in front of their computers, in cubicles, all day long and 3) they are using ancient equipment running Windows XP.

Working with Windows XP has been a genuine surprise. I kinda-sorta hated Windows, but futzing with it all day long is making me really hate it. I can’t say anything even remotely original here, so here’s a story:

My ongoing project now is to get the running-but-not-running-well computers shaped up. I call this “computer hygiene”. In extreme cases it requires erasing the hard drive and reinstalling Win XP. Usually I do it like this:

  1. Back up the teacher’s documents
  2. Boot from the XP install disk
  3. Erase the hard drive
  4. Install XP
  5. Reboot
  6. Install our virus scan software
  7. Reboot
  8. Install everything else (MS Office, etc.)
  9. Restore the teacher’s personal files

First, this process (usually a 30 minute to 2 hour process on a Mac) takes 4 to 8 hours. No fooling. Second, it requires that I babysit. Every so often one of these installers will ask me a question (“what languages do you need to install”)...but it doesn’t bother asking me these questions first so I can set it up and walk away. All day long I have to check back on that install. But third, I’ve yet to do this without seeing a virus pop up before step 8. That’s right: simply booting a networked Windows XP machine will probably get you a virus. Great operating system, that.

There are two buses leaving the school: one at 3:30 and one at 4:45. Most days I leave at 3:30, which means riding home with the kids, usually young kids. This is OK, but one of the things I’m learning about myself while working at a school is that I don’t find people younger than about 10 years very interesting at all. They are cute, sure, but that’s interesting for about one week. They just don’t have concrete personalities yet. The 4:45 bus is usually full of teachers and upper school students (who have lots of after school activities.) Buses are a major item of contention at the school. XIS strives to have door-to-door service and it’s a logistical nightmare. Jenny and I, like most of the teachers, live on the end of Xiamen Island closest to the mainland, so we have the shortest bus rides. But some of the kids ride more than an hour each way.


Most days, Jenny and I arrive home together around 5:30. Some days I leave on the early bus, having no compelling reason to stay until 4:45. Jenny coaches swimming so takes the late bus most days. We may do a little shopping in the greenmarket before heading home.

The greenmarket is one of my favorite places. Actually the market itself is a dim, smelly warehouselike space, but it’s the center of a wonderful confluence of junk shops, butchers, tea shops, bakeries, key grinders, barbers, taverns, recyclers, cafeterias, bicycle repair stalls, convenience stores, and seamstresses. We can pick up several pounds of fruits and veggies for less than 20元 (about US$2.00), and I’m sure we’re being taken for a ride because we don’t haggle. We stick to the stuff we recognize from the states, but there are plenty of fruitlike objects I simply don’t recognize.

Then we walk the dog again. Usually I walk him (again) through Huweishan park, which in the evenings has many more people in it, not all of them health nuts. This is also a popular hour for dog-walking. These, of course, are energetic little Chinese dogs, most of them about a tenth the size of Bismarck, and all of them with Napoleon complexes.

In the evening we go to the gym with Neil and Liz, our British upstairs neighbors. Liz teaches ESL with Jenny, and Neil works at Yingcai, the enormous Chinese boarding school across the road from XIS. The gym is pretty much exactly like an American gym, except it’s not air conditioned, the classes are in Chinese, and the showers are utterly filthy. Several teachers and other 老外 frequent this gym.

After the gym we may meet George, another Brit/neighbor/teacher for supper at a local shop. George has a nose for good Chinese food. He’s found two of our favorite local places, one an upscale dumpling restaurant that serves local cuisine, the other a halal noodle shop owned by Malaysian muslims. Otherwise, Jenny and I make a dinner of a variation on stir fry or spaghetti. I would eat every meal out (you can eat your fill at the halal place for 6元, less than US$1.00), but very few dishes in China are prepared without meat. Jenny is getting a little bored with Chinese cabbage, the one dish we can be sure every restaurant has.

After dinner we retire to watch a DVD. This is a minor adventure. First, we have a really cheap Chinese brand DVD player (important lesson: for everything but cookware “Chinese brand” = “just like a Japanese brand, but 200% crappier.” For example, I occasionally, see cars with the brand name “Houda.”). We bought it at the “Wal-Mart” (not an actual Wal-Mart! See note about “Houda” cars ab.) The crappy part is that audio and video are not quite synched. They drift apart until I pause and then hit play again, which temporarily re-syncs them (mostly.)

Second, Chinese DVDs are really spotty in quality. Older movies (for ex. CQ) have the best quality — pretty much exactly like American DVDs.

There are also lots of TV shows, these hav reasonable quality. We finished Season 5 of Alias and have been watching House. It’s nice to watch TV shows like this (one episode a night) because they provide a kind of cultural reboot. For an hour or two we can feel like we’re watching TV in America. Interesting thought: in America, I hated watching TV.

Then there are copies of recent movies like Miami Vice or Superman, which were literally recorded from inside a movie theater. These are CRAP, and we never buy them. For example Superman was all in (dubbed) Chinese. It had “English” subtitles but they were surreally bad. Pretty much word-for-word translations of the Chinese which, because Chinese is so unlike English, made for translations like “Gift with I son card of planet dome? Absolute. Friend kind back.” This sounds fun but it’s really frustrating. The amazing thing is that the packaging is really professional: die cuts, four color printing, etc. Except the English on the packaging is usually wrong. Either it’s text for the wrong movie, or it’s ha-ha funny translations.

By 10:30 or 11:00 we’re in bed. Which is exactly like going to bed in America