Category: Tsinghua

English tutoring

Longtime readers may remember this post from August where I promised to keep the blog going with all sorts of things, including retroactive uploads of posts I wrote (or partially wrote) but never got around to cleaning and publishing; they may have also noticed that I followed this declaration up by not posting any content for a full three months.
But tonight, I thought I’d throw one on here. As is so often the case on the China Match, I’m doing this instead of going to sleep. Today, this is due to my having turned off the gas when I went grocery shopping this afternoon, and not remembering to turn it on until just now. You guys ever heard of the boiling frog myth? Replace the frog with me, and the slow boiling with a gradual cooling of my house; I didn’t realize until like, just now that I’m freezing. Mind you I am sitting here in a Northface® and even wearing those silly looking typing gloves (shoutout to my little brother Jack for the unexpectedly useful Christmas preset); it occured to me to put on these things far before I realized I should just, you know, turn my heater back on. I’m smart, I promise.
Anyway as a quick spoiler alert, most of you have probably heard this story before; it is one of my favorites and one that I never blogged so I told it several times. I like it so much because it is so patently ridiculous that it’s clear I couldn’t have made it up. But yeah, thankfully before the details of these two days escaped me I typed out a rough version in an email, all I have to do tonight is clean it up a little bit. I’m still going to leave it in the like, I-am-reeling-from-the-strangeness-of-this, stream of consciousness style though. New reflections and clarifications appear in parenthesis.

Ok China, what the hell.
This is too weird.
The scenario in which I was initially recruited to be an English teacher: last night Dan and I had to kill about an hour and a half before meeting our friend Cameron. (It occurs to me that I am very much doing what Cameron did this summer — namely assuming the role of an outsider breaking in on a coherent group of friends via a highschool connection). We knew Cameron would want to go to a bar but we also were both rapidly running low on funding and aren’t looking to drop 200+ kuai on getting drunk. So we came up with a solution, namely to get a bottle of good ol’ baijiu from the supermarket and drink it on the street. (Baijiu, incidentally, is a common Chinese liquor. It’s sorta like rice-based vodka, smells like gasoline, and doesn’t taste much better. Bottles can run anywhere from ten to ten thousand RMB. I’ll let you guess which end of that spectrum we were shopping in).
Dan’s stomach couldn’t take that for some reason (for some reason = we each took down a whole bottle while watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” the night before) so we went to the cheap beer store and we camped outside of it. (Said store, in a bid to outdo the destruction of the Korean alley for most-disappointing-part-of-Wudaokou, no longer offers the big 3 kuai Yanjings consumed by NU students all summer).
Literally sat on the street, drinkin’, people watching. I have Dan’s first empty beer bottle, a bottle of gatorade (best chaser ever), and an empty bottle of baijiu in front of me when this lady comes up with fliers. We automatically wave her away, but then realize she’s speaking in English and asking us if we’re interested in being teachers. After incredulously determining that she’s not just messing with us, we fill out her survey and concede that we have no real teaching experience. She isn’t phased in the slightest and invites us to come officially interview at the language center based on the edge of Qinghua’s campus. Takes our numbers but doesn’t give us one to call; says if the language center likes it then it’ll call us.

To their credit, I actually didn’t get called, but Dan did (he said he had a bit of experience teaching some English to little kids in the DR. Apparently this is close enough to tutoring what turned out to be PHD students for them to consider him qualified). Dan didn’t want to go, but before he hung up on them I had him ask them if I could go interview, just to see what the process was like. They say sure and Dan gives me their number. I call them later that day and they told me to be at the east gate of the school by 3:15 or something.

The 731. These were supposed to run one every 15 minutes. Several times a day though, they'd just send 3 at once every 45 minutes. This picture has two; one of them has already driven past me. Not particularly helpful.

Helpfully I mishear them and think they say Northeast gate. I get there at 3:20 or so because the 431 is the worst bus to ever exist. I call them and it turns out that I waited for the bus for nothing, because I’m supposed to be at the east gate, which is helpfully pretty much where the bus left from. I decide to hike it back down on foot, which turns out to be a poor decision because it’s the middle of August and Qinghua’s campus is gigantic. Takes fifteen, twenty minutes.

I eventually get to the office. They take me in, have me sit awkwardly for fifteen or so minutes, have me fill out another little sheet which asks again: “have you ever taught before?” I don’t lie (against all my instincts), I just put no. Zero experience. They ask me for what I want to be paid, I say 15 kuai, they ask if I mean 15 usd. They laugh at me when I say kuai. I asked way too low apparently. Anyway then they take this chick that’s been sitting in the room with me the whole time and they’re like “here’s your student. Go teach her a lesson.”

I mean, I’m wearing a t shirt and flip flops, sweating a lot because I’ve been walking around in 90 degree heat for a while. I have a backpack but it only has a laptop that can’t get on the internet on campus anymore and some other random crap in there; i’m clearly not prepared to actually teach anybody anything. I thought that I was coming to just fill out some paperwork and then maybe talk about what the potential job would entail in some sort of interview setting.

So I’m understandably pretty confused when they put me in a conference room with this girl and just say “teach English.”

I’m like well ok girl what do you even want to learn? How’s your English level, what do you need help with?

Her response is basically ‘hey fuck if I know just teach me some English.’ In perfect English. I get to know her for a second, talk to her about what she’s studying, how old she is. I quickly realize I have basically nothing to teach this girl. Tells me her English level is higher than most students, so I shouldn’t be worried about that. But yet she’s like yeah, so lets hear a lesson. So I tell her I don’t know how because that’s vague as hell and I have nothing to help me. She keeps telling me to relax, and just teach her stuff. Grammar? Pronunciation? Do you just want to talk? Role play? Everything’s ok apparently. So out of desperation at this point and I write a bunch of words that start with TH on the board because I know Chinese people are bad at making that sound (read: Pat Wang is bad at making this sound, and he is the best Chinese person, so if he can’t then nobody should be able to. I wish that this was further from being my real thought process than it was). Tried some “V” sounds too, because that’s a letter that Chinese doesn’t have, and the reason my name has to be KeWen here. She did both just fine. I had no idea what to do. She spoke English pretty dang well. I was like, do you want to do some work with the past tense and verb conjugations? (Chinese doesn’t have either of these, really, so this was as good a guess as any). And she’s like I already know all that…. super disconcerting. I mean she makes all the little mistakes that Chinese people always make; she omits little words and stuff but it’s hard to describe the scenario in which one would appropriately use awkward-to-translate words like “does.” (When pressed to translate it more fully than I was doing, I was like “how bout you translate 就 clearly for me first”. Not only is this a horribly childish way to act as a potential tutor, it was also somewhat of a cheap shot, because there’s no way in hell one can concisely define a word like that. Just look)

So what the hell am I supposed to be doing, yeah?

I wind up just talk to her about her Qinghua PHD program that she’s starting up soon. (To get into the Qinghua graduate school, you have to score exceptionally highly on an examination where one of the components is English, turns out.) Then they take me back out into this waiting room and they ask if I can come back tomorrow and teach people in half hour sessions for five hours? And I’m like, no – hey p.s. I am hella not qualified for this did you not just watch me fail miserably – and she wont hear a word of either. I tell her I’m just checking this out so I can come back and maybe do it in winter (I do not have time to do it this winter) and they clearly don’t give even one damn. They’re like come teach for five hours tomorrow and we’ll pay you and give you dinner. Which would be kinda tempting, but this was two days before my flight back to the states and I had better things to do.

In my best Chinese, I attempt to communicate that a) I dont understand this process at all b) we now both know I can’t teach English, particularly with zero preparation. Like, isn’t that apparent now? And they say something along the lines of “we’ll teach you how to teach” but first make a demo for these ten kids tomorrow. No matter that you don’t know them or their Chinese level. Just make some lessons and spit ’em out for five hours and then we’ll start telling you how to stop sucking at it.

“Um lady I dont know how to make lessons why are you asking me for this i’ve already told you I can’t”

“Oh its fine you can just talk to them about whatever”

“The hell does that mean? What are they even looking to learn?”
“We’ll give you a list of topics and you just chat with them about them.” Oh.

I mean ok you liar you’ve said this whole time I was going to be teaching lessons not just chatting about random topics but I still am not coming to help you for five hours on my last day in china.

Long story short they are truly, truly desperate for anyone who can coherently assemble an English sentence or something because otherwise this doesn’t make any goddamn sense at all.


So it’s about nine in the morning, and here I am awake. “Why’s that, Kevin?” You may fairly ask, “haven’t you been unreasonably happy at the prospect of getting to sleep in as late as you’d like for the past like month and a half?”

“Well yes,” I would respond. “In fact, in lieu of any other concrete plans, the notion that I was going to spend about twelve hours a day asleep was one of the only stable parts of this trip. However, upon further examination of the dorm it would appear that there is a full battery of chinese workers who would rather sit ten yards away from me and repeatedly drill into the wall every morning for the next week at eight thirty.”

“Ah, damn,” you might reply. “That seems rather unfortunate. What’re you going to do about it?”

But alas, by the time you asked this question, I probably wouldn’t be able to hear you over the noise. The drills start up about every six seconds, and last for about ten. So that would be the end of the conversation unless I were to follow my absolutely overpowering urge to go downstairs and see what those drills sound like when the bit is firmly inserted deep, deep up the nose of whatever motherfucker decided 8:30 is a suitable time for construction in a residential space. Then I might get some goddamn sleep.

Pure rage. Sleepy, sleepy rage.

In any event, it would appear that my first mission in China has been selected for me: find a good spot to take naps in public. Or murder a crew full of construction workers and get away with it. We’ll see. The napping thing is probably more likely though; it’s fantastically popular among the chinese, so i’d kinda like to see what all the hype is about.

But Jesus. Really, guys?

Moving out

It’s been a rather bittersweet day here at Qinghua. Today was checkout day, which meant a lot of goodbyes. Wouldn’t really be that big of a deal, but some kids on the program won’t be back at Northwestern this fall, so the parting felt a lot more permanent; people are graduating, transferring (damn it, anna), and some never went to NU in the first place. Incidentally, the Chinese word for goodbye, 再见, literally translates to see you again. Made me wonder what you tell people whom you suspect are kinda gone forever. Hrm.

I actually almost missed saying bye to like thirty people because while they were leaving I was both having to check out and back in to a new dorm. I ended up running onto the main bus right before they left and just waving like an idiot to everybody, meriting big collective ‘bye’ in return. 很满意.

Speaking of the new dorm: we were pretty amused when we opened the door and discovered that our double had three televisions, and somewhat less amused when we learned that they apparently came at the cost of our desk space and internet connection. They told us they couldn’t help us out with the Ethernet cables, but we got the TVs moved — I’ve yet to watch television here — and had just started to settle in when the guy came back and told us that they had cables now, and we could buy one for eighteen kuai. Twenty seconds later, through either some miracle of bargaining or just generosity on the part of the TV-moving dude, he just gave dan one for free (I dont travel without an ethernet cable, as any good nerd should).

This kinda crap happens a lot in China, but it’s been off the charts today. Like, at lunch we tried to order fries, and they said they were entirely out of food from that page of the menu. A chinese guy we were eating with confirmed that. Ten minutes later, they come out with two big plates of fries? My chinese isn’t _that_ bad; this isn’t miscommunication, this is bizarre.

Even checking out of the room was weird as hell. We didn’t get our room checked for damage or anything because we were told to bring our crap to building 19 first, where they presented us with some form that said “this room is free of damage” or something. The other kids checking out were like yeah you’re supposed to go get your room inspected and get the inspector to sign off on it… but when I tried to go leave with the form, the checkout lady was just like “no! you sign here!” under the spot clearly labeled, in english, “receptionist.” So we signed it, and didn’t have to pay for the stuff that we broke in the room, which I guess is cool? Today has been one long exercise in strangeness. The fact that i went to bed at 5:30 two nights ago (yay mcdonald’s run!) and 4:30 last night and got up at 10 and 8 respectively probably doesn’t help much.

I’m kinda drained, to be honest. Oh and there’s a very high chance that i have pink eye (thanks, jackie), because i looked like i had it yesterday… but today the symptoms have completely faded (on jackie too), which is weird. In any event, if i do have pink eye, i almost definitely passed it along to ashley in a bid for worst-goodbye-ever (if you’re reading, i am actually pretty sorry about that. good thing you’re traveling internationally right now; i hear that does wonders for the immune system).

So now what? I honestly don’t exactly know what to do. As of now, I’m here without school, a job, my family, and all but a few friends. Every force I’ve ever had that either directly or socially compels me to take any sort of productive action is halfway across the world.

What i do have is a roommate, a burgeoning grip on this mess of a language, and the desire to eat tasty food and see interesting things.

Oh, and the urge to take a nap. For wont of anything better to do, i guess that means it’s bedtime. To my 同学们 — i’ll really miss you guys. China won’t be the same.

Just to lighten the tone of this post a bit. nomnomnom


I’ve got my last test tomorrow. after that will follow a bunch of little posts about the summer palace, temple of heaven, art district, beijing opera, 什么的。


Holy hell. I’m so excited.

Also, I hope that this can make up for the lack of posts recently:

I might not be able to wear this back in Texas, people would take it seriously

I’m still alive

A number of factors have combined to delay me blogging this past week. Doesn’t mean cool shit hasn’t been happening. Life in china just moves really, really quickly. I’ll actually elaborate on what’s been going on in a few hours; I have two real posts to make first. I’m just using these few sentences as a placeholder so i can edit stuff later and the posts will still come out in the right order, and the shanghai / great wall blogs are at the top of the site (instead of this semi meta, random info-post)

Edit 8/15/10

Whoa. Totally forgot to come back to this one. I guess all I was going to talk about was the finals workload, plus the nonstop travel, plus trying to expand socially a bit was just too much. But I wound up with 4 As on this program, because I am a badass. But yeah, the days leading up to the break were stupidly chaotic.

Edit 3/1/2011

Hah! Found this while making my archive thing. Anyway if I recall properly the specific things that were keeping me busy were: A) studying for tests, which I ended up opting not coming back to write about because that’s boring as hell B) exploring the city’s many ridiculous haggling markets / Houhai, which I didn’t write about because I’d just covered one of them and they’re not that dissimilar and C) breaking up with my then-girlfriend, which I didn’t write about because ostensibly I’m not a complete and total prick. We’re cool again now, though!


Alright friends, here’s the deal. Because the ostensible subject of this post isn’t necessarily that interesting — I’m going to write about my dorm and my classes, and it’s going to be pretty long — if you read it you get to look at a small sample of the outstanding Engrish (poor attempts to translate Chinese into English) that I’ve encountered so far. For instance, you might enjoy reading the fire safety sign on my door as much as I did when I first moved in. This photo is incredible for at least five reasons. Can you spot them all?

My Location Place.

Anyway, purely for the sake of good record keeping, I live in this room at the end of this hall. And yes, that’s literally just a picture of a hallway, not hidden awesome Engrish. We live in a building that is indistinguishable from any building around it — on the first day, Dan and I had to go all the way to our room’s equivalent in a nearby building before we realized we were in the wrong place — in the Northeast part of the campus (清华大学东北门口 is sufficient to get you here by taxi if you’re ever in the neighborhood). We go to class for four and a half hours a day in a building nearby that is home to not only classrooms, but also a bank, supermarket, a small electronics store, and all sorts of other random crap. It’s called the C building (or C-store, if you’re feeling nostalgic for NU) for obvious reasons.

Our Chinese class, running from nine to noon, is nothing short of absurdity. In I think seven or eight days of actual class, we have already covered almost a full quarter worth of material. Our teacher, Gaoning 老师, is a very sweet, well-meaning lunatic. I mean, she kinda has to be a little crazy to cram four and a half chapters of material down our throats so quickly via nothing but note cards, powerpoints (the chinese word for these, incidentally, is “pee pee tee,” or .ppt, the file extension) and charades. She refuses to speak a word of English, so to explain new vocabulary words or even grammatical concepts she just acts everything out in a bizarre pantomime. Doing this for every new word and structure takes her some time, of course, so she compensates by speeding way, way up for these sorts of explanations. She also has this really fun exercise where she finds whoever is paying the least attention at that particular second and then either has them make up new sentences or waves index cards frantically in their face, which they then have to read aloud as quickly as possible. Rinse and repeat dozens of times in a row, then add some frantic puppet-show style mock-conversations, and you’ve got a pretty good picture of how we roll in Chinese 3. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty awesome. I have way more fun with it than I thought I would after our first day.

Oh shit! This picture is on the left! Madness!

While it isn't necessarily conventional Engrish, the gay car still brightens up my ride to class

Our history class is just a slightly older, significantly more Asian version of Ryan Cooper telling us stories for an hour and a half. If you don’t know Ryan, and most of you don’t, that’s kinda unfortunate but there’s not much I can do. He’s sorta like a sarcastic teddy bear, though. Of note is the video camera in the back of our classroom that Victor (the teacher) often makes passing reference to, immediately before he spits out the relevant, obviously-fabricated party line for us. He then explains the actual situation — remember, we’re learning the history of Chinese communism — and the contrast between the two has yet to be anything short of hysterical. It probably wouldn’t be quite so funny if I was an actual Chinese citizen and actually had to live in the same country as this Party, but hey.

My roommate asked about the Falun Gong the other day, and Victor just started laughing really nervously. He mumbled something about how he really shouldn’t be talking about that in China, then looked straight at the camera and says “The Falun Gong are an evil cult that has been completely expunged from this country.” A little later, he decided to gamble on the camera not actually being watched, and began to actually tell us, albeit quietly and quickly, about who these guys are. This type of Jeckyll and Honorable Chairman Hyde style back-and-forth storytelling is actually really engaging. Too bad the class ends in like ten days.

That’s all for now. I have a field trip coming up in history to some military museum pretty soon, so I’ll either be talking about that or the fourth of July in China next.

For making it all the way down here, you guys get a special bonus Engrish. This one’s actually been independently spotted by two of the Shepherd brothers, three years apart. My photography skills, however, evidently exceed his.

Some logistical stuff

Time info:
Beijing is on UTC+8 time, which means it’s 13 hours ahead of US central time, 12 hours ahead of eastern time, etc.

Hours that I am in class: 9-12, 2-3:30 pm.
Hours that I am busy on Saturday: usually 9-3, maybe later depending on the trip. This is the day we travel around to all sorts of random places in china. I’m free all day sundays.

Contact info:
Skype: kevin.g.shepherd (Skype me! I have a new microphone so it should work just fine. I’ll be on skype pretty much whenever I’m in the room)
Email: kevin.g.shepherd[at]gmail (Checked very frequently)
Phone: 15010674857 (Dont know how to text internationally, but I can call internationally. Can text and call domestically)

Trips incoming:
June 23rd:           Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City
June 28th:            Cruise in Longqing Gorge
July 10:                 Great Wall
July 15-20:          Shanghai World Expo
July 24:                 Jingshan Park and Beihai Park
July 31:                 Antique Market and Temple of Heaven
August 7:             Summer Palace
August 15:           Vacate dorm
August 16-29:    Attempt to survive in Beijing. A little terrifying.

Dinner soon, but today has basically been completely nuts. Really, the prices here are the hardest things to adjust to. For instance, today at breakfast we fed 6 people for a combined 20 yuan, which is about 3 dollars even. Everybody got an egg, some oatmeal type stuff, two steamed buns (包字), a drink, and a sticky bun. Granted this was a little cheap even for china, because this particular dining hall is government subsidized for tsinghua students only. You need like a special card to eat there. Fortunately a woman took pity on us this morning because the grocery store beneath our classroom was closed and we had nowhere to eat, so she gave us a meal card with 35 yuan on it. This card is rechargeable. Foreigners are really not supposed to have them. Did someone say 50 cent breakfasts for the whole summer? Because I hear the chinese communist party is paying. Hell yeah.

Mmm, tastes like subsidies

The Communist dining hall. Delicious.

Then later, I got both a cell phone with 200 minutes and a bike for a combined $50 USD. Basically, this country is incredible. I mean granted the bike is flimsy and terrifying and the brakes aren’t what one might call “reliable” but hey, it’s China.

Some people study abroad for noble reasons; they go to some underdeveloped hellhole and try to Make a Difference. The ones who aren’t in Africa or South America are in the room across from me, studying Chinese public health, ostensibly with the intent to be able to do something about the miserable state it’s in.

Some want immersion; they live with a host family, try to go native. They’re a few miles away at Beijing University, cramming Chinese down their throats for five or six hours a day.

Still others don’t really care about the “foreign” aspect at all. They go to Western Europe or Australia just for a change of pace, or attend renown universities that excel in a given area of study. The equivalent here is the native Chinese speakers who’ve come along to pick up a few Northwestern credits and have a good time. They don’t face a language barrier at all, generally have already lived in China at some point in their lives, and are the reason I was able to eat breakfast this morning.

I can’t honestly say I’m here for any reasons as understandable as these. This is easily the most ‘foreign’ place I’ve ever been, I’m living in an English-speaking international dorm (only studying mandarin two or three hours daily), and certainly am not attempting to change China. China wouldn’t want what I’d give it. This culture is one of the oldest and highly ingrained on the planet; it’s in many ways as overwhelming as the pollution that fogs your vision and turns your snot black. I’m just along for the ride.

God, I wish this was just fog

The view from our dorm. That's not cloud cover.

So why am I in Beijing right now? Course credit, I guess (i’m majoring in econ and asian/middle eastern studies, and i’m in the “Emerging Legal and Economic Structures” program) but also just to see something entirely different from anything I’ve experienced before. I may not be ‘immersed,’ but i’ll still be studying a bunch of Chinese, and hopefully becoming relatively conversational. If I fail at this, i’m going to have a tough time when august 15th rolls around — that’s when the program ends, and I have two more weeks in china with my roommate. No schedules, no school, no job, no responsibilities at all — just me and a bizarre new country.

I’m more excited for this summer than I’ve been for pretty much any experience in recent memory. I’m with about fifty other kids from Northwestern from all different majors and backgrounds; everyone I’ve met so far seems interesting.

I’ve gotta go change some currency and buy a bike now. Have a pretty funny story about breakfast (we cheated the chinese government after only maybe twenty hours in the country. hell yeah) that i’ll tell in the next post probably.

Tiananmen square and forbidden city tomorrow.