Year Two In China, Coming Up

I arrived in China without a long-term plan to stay. Maybe I was just looking to escape monotony. Maybe I saw my own mortality and wondered, fretfully, “Is this it,” as I felt myself start to age. Like many expats, I think, I arrived with the simple desire to see and experience something different. The teaching part was a nice way to make money while changing pace.

I assumed I’d be in Changchun for a year, if I could stomach it. Two years was definitely never part of the plan. But, I’ve signed on for another year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, after all. If you’re happy, go with it.

This week, I had a meeting with my company’s boss, who expressed that they’d like to be especially accommodative, should I desire to stay.

“In China, we treat you as well as you work for us,” she said. “You have worked really well and your schools express that they like you, so we can give you more flexibility. So please, if their is anything you think you want, you can tell me now before I prepare the contract.”

I think that’s a fair deal. I’m comfortable. I never go home thinking, “What the hell am I doing with my life.” Contrarily, I think, “What a unique life I’ve lived.” You can’t really ask for much more than that.

Do I plan on staying in Chanchun forever? Of course not! I think you have to approach this job a day, a week, a month, and a year at a time (goes for any job really). I’m sure I’ll be back in America… eventually.

Sadly, my schedule is a little different this term; I have a class during my usual “basketball” hours, which means that I can only play basketball once a week. The other players have been asking where I am.

With all that said, here’s a recap of my week:

I had lunch with Leeyang, my usual basketball teammate, on Friday. “I go home every day and my wife says that I seem exhausted, and she worries that I work too hard. Actually, I am not tired from work… I’m tired because I play so much basketball at school!” He then broke into laughter.

It’s interesting because the Chinese trash talking is eerily similar to American trash talking. For example, I told the guys that my favorite player is Tim Duncan. Now, every time I shoot, people on the other team will shout, “Tim Duncan! Miss! Miss!”

Another time I had the ball stolen from me by a much shorter player. I can be too careless with the ball. As he looked back at me he said in Chinese, “Thank you very much!”

If I make a shot, the other team will grumble, “Tai gao le!” That’s the Chinese way of saying, “He’s too tall!”





Teaching ESL Requires Flexibility

A whole lot of flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong, being “good” at teaching, like coaching, does require planning too. There has to be a curriculum, as well as a set of teaching “styles” you’ve developed that are ready to use. There has to be an outline of how the days, weeks, and months will flow, and a vision for what people will gain over a span of time.

But damn, if you teach ESL in another country, you’ve also gotta be really flexible. There is nothing “stable” about ESL teaching! If you want utter predictability, you’re better off just about anywhere else. To lean on any strategy or to follow a lesson plan verbatim can be your doom on any given day.

When I was first starting out, I heavily relied on PowerPoints. I still use them, but I used to NEED them. I put exercises, audio, and video on them. It was nice and convenient–plug in your USB and then let the class fall into place.

Then you enter the occasional classroom where the Chinese teacher says, “The computer doesn’t work today.” If you need the PowerPoint to teach, suddenly you’re screwed. Hope you’re good at improvisation!

Or maybe you have a class with a lot of kids that just don’t like PowerPoints. It happens. The second the .PPT gets switched on, they’re making paper airplanes.

Conversely, if you rely on your chalkboard, you might walk into a classroom where the chalkboard is covered with text and the eraser is missing. With no one else in sight, it simply means that you can’t use the chalkboard. Hope you brought some songs!!!

Sometimes too, you have quiet classes full of students who love watching you write on the board. But you also have some classes that turn into crazed psychopaths the second they see you turn toward the board. How will you handle THOSE classes?

In ESL, the teacher who stubbornly follows a lesson plan, bullet point by bullet point, is the teacher that will slowly (or maybe quickly) go insane.

Sometimes, the game you thought would be your masterpiece just falls flat. Inevitably, the students will hate something that you hoped they’d love. And if they hate it, you can’t fight back at them or display anger to “make” them like it. The verdict is out: your precious game isn’t good! Now, are you going to drag out an activity they hate for another ten minutes while the class turns into a scene from Children of the Corn, or are you going to switch things up?

It doesn’t matter how fun YOU think a game is. If the kids aren’t interested, the game will probably not work to your benefit.

You have to have an honest grasp of the present moment and have an arsenal of “alternatives,” should something not go your way. In other words, make a backup plan! Maybe you have some extra flashcards in your bag, or a “go-to” game like Hangman. But at some point, you’ll find yourself needing to switch gears. You can’t cling to an outline if the outline isn’t working.

You also have to be patient, because if things that are out of your control start to get the best of you–whether it be the PowerPoint not working, or the class fighting back/ignoring you–you’ll find the next few hairs that you grow will be white. The second you display anger and frustration, you’ve lost.

If a plan goes awry, put on a game face, switch to another activity, stay calm, and try your best to make some semblance of progress. Trying your best is truly all anyone (anyone reasonable at least) asks of you; if you can do it with a smile, you’ll succeed as an ESL teacher.

And if that alternative approach doesn’t work, you have to go home, assess what went wrong in the lesson, and try to figure out how a different approach might improve things for the next one. Maybe it’s just trying a different classroom management strategy. Maybe the class just wants to sing more songs.

It’s like sports. Sometimes you lose a match; that doesn’t mean you jump off a bridge! It means you try to win the next one.

I’m not a guy that likes to sing and clap to lame kid’s songs. If some of my old Texas Swimming teammates saw me clapping and singing to “Three Blind Mice” today, they’d probably be wondering what alien invaded the “Manimal’s” body. I wasn’t even that goofy when I was eight years old.

Funnily enough, before I came to China, I had a conversation with a childhood swim coach who knew me as an eleven year old. I told her that I thought I could work well with kids under 12.

“You think so? I think that’d be awesome,” she said. “I think you can, but you know, you were never one of those “rah rah let’s cheer together” kinda guys. Do you think you have that in you?”

No, I’m not that goofy by nature, but I am a guy that likes to do activities that resonate well with people. When I sing and clap, kids tend to love it. I don’t love it, but they do. Hey, sometimes we’ve gotta make the sacrifice. So, I do it! I put on an “alter ego” when I enter the classroom–one willing to be energetic and “enthusiastic” about chants and singalongs–and I go with it. This “goofy dancing McGinnis” isn’t natural, but it isn’t all that bad either.

If you’re willing to change according to what works (in anything you do, not just teaching abroad), I believe the sky is the limit.

And if you feel too self-conscious doing silly little kids’ stuff, remember: just because your friends back home don’t think your goofy, doesn’t mean the people in your new country feel the same way. What better place to act like a “kid at heart?” It’s not like anyone will judge you for being out of character!

So, be flexible!


Black Panther and Annihilation: THUMBS UP

I naturally want to hate Marvel and love Star Wars; it’s just where my childhood allegiances lie. However, I loved Black Panther and hated The Last Jedi. I have to be honest with myself.

Black Panther is an excellent, excellent film. I wanted to find some valid and biting criticism in order to play the contrarian, but I was enthralled from start to finish. It’s the ideal “Blockbuster”–the kind of film most compatible with a big bucket of popcorn and a large soda. I’d go so far as to say that it’s a contender for the best Marvel film. In my mind the top candidates are Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Logan, Spider-Man 1 and 2 (with Tobey Maguire), and Captain America: Winter Soldier. 

What elevates Black Panther is the excellent writing and direction of Ryan Coogler. He’s an incredible talent! I was a fan of his previous film, Creed, so I had high expectations with him at the helm.

The action sequences are stellar and they’re backed by character depth and excellent performances. Michael B Jordan deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination. He deserved more recognition for Creed, so I’m hoping he gets what is long overdue with this film.

I’ve been on a great movie watching streak, because the other recent film I watched is Annihilation, and it’s a masterpiece. We’ve had some strong science fiction films over the last few years (Blade Runner 2049 was ROBBED of an Oscar nom for Best Picture), and I think this is the strongest of the bunch. It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen and possesses the perfect combination of jaw-dropping special effects and thought-provoking story.

In a fair world, Annihilation would be a top candidate for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Last year’s Oscar winner, The Shape of Water, was much worse–besides some great acting, it’s a pretty dull movie. It’s proof that a romance between a human and a monster can be boring.

The factors working against Annihilation winning awards are the box office results and the release date. Too bad. It’s one of the few films of this era that warrants repeat viewings. The truly timeless movies usually don’t win the big one though; that’s just how art works.

On another note: how many AUDIENCE members actually thought The Shape of Water was the best movie of 2017? Give me a break, Academy! It’s ok I guess, but I can think of more than ten movies last year that were far, far better. No wonder the ratings keep sinking!

One final note, and I think that any cinema buffs will agree with me on this: there’s nothing like having a popcorn and soda at the movies. I like to think that the late and great Roger Ebert went out with a bucket of popcorn on his lap (and Siskel too for that matter). We all have to go at some point, after all, and death tends to be a lonely and painful experience. What better way to go out?

Got the Chinese Phone Plan

I had a brilliant idea for keeping my US phone plan and phone number while living and working in China: Google Project Fi.

I bought a Good Pixel phone (an excellent phone) and signed up for the Project Fi plan (an excellent plan). It allows for free international texting and high-speed service worldwide, for just 30 dollars a month (if you use 1 GB/month).

It worked brilliantly. I had service the moment I landed in China, the fees are reasonable, and I could text my friends back home at any point I wanted.

But, after about 7 months, I found that I needed to switch to a China plan. Why?

This was nothing against Project Fi. It’s the best plan of the best. In my opinion, every US citizen should have this plan. But for China, it caused a few inconveniences.

First, just because my texting is free doesn’t mean that it’s free for Chinese citizens. Any coworkers attempting to text me were incurring huge fees on their own phone bills by texting my US number. I realized that I was becoming a nuisance to contact.

To remedy this first problem, I bought a cheap China flip phone for them to contact. Problem solved, right?

But then I was carrying around two phones, one for America and one for China. And I was paying two phone bills, albeit cheap bills. I was charging two phones at night. It just wasn’t fun for a guy who likes things simple.

My total bills for the month were as follows: $30/month for the US, and another $2/month for China. That’s a grand spanking $32 per month to have two fully-operating phones.

But in China, most citizens use WeChat, even for texting. Explaining to them that I have a US phone linked to my WeChat and a China phone without any WeChat was getting weird. It was also getting weird not knowing which phone number to give to people.

Then I realized: I could just get a Chinese phone plan, with data, for the US equivalent of 7 dollars a month. Yes, it’s that cheap. I’d save another $25/month by consolidating.

Then I accidentally dropped my Chinese cell phone in the laundry, and I had no choice (okay, this played a very significant part in the maneuver!).

So, I have one cell phone now! But it makes sense. US friends can still IM me on WeChat, WhatsApp, or Skype. And at any time I decide to move back to America, I can just put my Google Fi Sim card back in. Voila, back to my old plan.

One more thing I realized this week: it’s about time to get back on Twitter. As much as I despise social media, having one account has its uses. For example, an old Texas friend named Poston used to keep tabs on my life through my Twitter handle. It also brought him to this blog, where he read about my experiences with Aaron Peirsol and decided to share it with other old teammates. Suddenly I was hearing from old friends I never realized gave a damn about my travels.

So maybe social media has its uses (Twitter, NOT Facebook!)…. IF it’s limited in scope.

A “Typical” Friday in China

I woke up at 5:00 am, which is the time I have my alarm set to daily. My room is a little warmer than it was in January. In January, the ceramic heaters just couldn’t overcome daytime highs of zero degrees, which left me sleeping in a hat and scarf on numerous occasions. Now I’m at least sleeping without those, as is expected of a normal human being. I’ve heard that sleeping in the scarf you wear all day isn’t particularly healthy. Just a rumor, maybe.

I woke up and quickly did about 30 minutes of exercise with a jump rope and dumbbells, followed by a few rounds of pushups. I’m eager to jog outside again, but the weather hasn’t quite warmed up enough. Gym? Fuhgetaboutit! It snowed three inches yesterday, on top of another four inches of snow two days before that. The daytime high is still right at 32 degrees F. It’s March 16th. The lakes are still frozen solid.

It’s been a long winter. We’re going on five months of nonstop cold weather (and I mean, COLD). I was one heck of a trooper in January, but I should’ve geared up for a marathon instead of a sprint.

I agreed to teach three extra English classes this term. This morning was to be my first day teaching the extra classes, and I found myself regretting that I accepted them. Last fall, I had 19 classes spread over four days. This term, I have 22 classes spread over Monday-Friday. Those three extra classes make a BIG difference.

After exercising, I trekked over to my newest high school: No. 6 High School. Yeah, I’m also teaching at three different schools now. This is what the workforce does to people who do something well: it gives them more to do!

Public high schools can be difficult (as any job can be difficult), regardless of what country you teach in. They present the same common problems (or “challenges”, if you’re a glass half full kinda person). Rebellious kids, smart phone distractions, and a lack of resources are my “Big 3” problem (challenge) makers. I’ve seen all of them aplenty in China, which seems eerily similar to America. Sometimes it’s more challenging in China because there’s a language barrier preventing you from communicating what you want.

So, I wasn’t too keen on going to No. 6 High School, despite accepting the offer. I’d also heard mixed (okay, negative!) things about the kids there.

The school is enormous–six stories high and possessing hallways you can walk down for minutes straight without making a turn. The architecture looks relatively modern. It’s one of those buildings where every surface is glossy enough to see a little of your reflection. That’s not how I would describe the surfaces of most public schools.

When you enter a new school in China, you sometimes get what I think of as the “new foreign teacher treatment.” This means that you arrive with zero communication on what you’re supposed to teach, zero knowledge of where your classroom is, zero knowledge of what your eating situation is going to be (are you really allowed in the cafeteria? Roll the dice!), and zero knowledge of your teaching resources.

I always bring a “goodie bag” as backup in case the classroom is ill equipped. My “goodie bag” has chalk, an eraser, a USB, a computer mouse (sometimes you have a computer without a mouse), about 30 pens (students often forget theirs), a deck of cards for English games, a soft ball for more English games, some textbooks, and some printouts (in case the computer doesn’t work, I have printouts to either distribute or show via an overhead projector).


Sometimes you get a state-of-the-art classroom with a large LED monitor “touch screen” to present your beautiful .PPT-enhanced lectures. It will have a computer that’s easy to use and a sound system that’s perfect for any audio files you might have.

Sometimes you get a dank little cellar with a few rusty chairs, moldy windows, empty candy wrappers littered about the floor, and a stained whiteboard. All that’s missing is some padded walls and a straight jacket.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In just seven months I’ve seen the full gamut. The quality of the classroom isn’t even dependent on the school. Sometimes the same school will put you in both great and not-so-great classrooms.

Needless to say, you’ve gotta be flexible and expect the unexpected. You have to accept that stability is gone. The moment you sign up to teach English in a foreign country, it falls out the window and crashes into a million sad little pieces.

I hate arriving at places extremely early–I’m a procrastinator by nature–but you need to allow a good cushion of time for teaching in a foreign country, especially on your first day. So I arrived at the school about 45 minutes early and used the extra time to figure out everything I would need before the bell rang.

I met the Chinese teacher in charge of the English department for all of five seconds. She threw a textbook my way and said, “You can use this.” Then she took off, leaving me to an empty classroom and my own devices.

Do I have to use this? Is it optional? Do I test them with this? Do we complete the exercises in this? Welcome to China. This is a common way of beginning a term, so it didn’t shock me like it did back in September.

I then waited in my classroom, in utter silence, until my first class arrived.

Sound like hell? This is a job, and all jobs have positives and negatives. I just described some of the negatives. Nothing in life is Utopian, and if you think teaching in a country that doesn’t speak your language is a great idea, it’s important to realize that there’s a reason foreign teachers don’t tend to last long.

There’s also plenty of reasons why foreign teachers choose to stay for years. As crazy as all of that sounds, the classes can be really fun.

I was pleasantly surprised that I liked the students. They left a first impression of being enthusiastic, attentive, and generally kind; you can’t really ask for much more than that. They genuinely wanted to practice speaking English, and they were eager for me to help correct their speaking. That makes the hassle worthwhile to me. When you have a group of kids that want to learn, the exterior BS becomes meaningless. It also doesn’t hurt that the students seemed to like me (I have an ego, so yes, even I need praise!).

Despite loving free time, I have to acknowledge something important: with every class I teach, I improve a little at teaching. There is something fulfilling about feeling tangible improvements in anything you do. Improvements signify growth, and if we aren’t growing, well… it means we’re dying.

I got home at noon and received a message from my company. “The Bureau of Education will be inspecting your No. 2 High School classes on Monday and Tuesday. Please prepare the best lessons you can. Make them perfect.”

This isn’t the time to be a smart ass and reply, “But no one is perfect!”

Like I said, you have to be flexible if you want to do a job this far off the beaten path. When I get messages like these, I responds with a simple “Ok, I will do my best,” and I get to work. What else can you do? So, I spent the remainder of my Friday creating what I hope are some decent high school lectures for next week.

I might be doing something right. In a field of about 120 teachers, I was selected the “Most Excellent Teacher” in the city for 2017. I don’t say this to brag… okay okay, I do a little! But mostly it’s to suggest that just maintaining a positive attitude and doing your job can elevate you over a very large field, in any facet of life.

Tomorrow I’ll get back to my “normal” weekend routine. This means going to the cinema, eating at a decent restaurant, and reading a good book. Not too much different from the American weekend, I guess.

A day in the life…

What is Enough?

The following passage is cited from Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s book, Enough:

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . enough.”

I was walking to class with a fifth grade teacher at my primary school today. “What is your dream job?” I asked her. It’s a common question that I’ve often asked and been asked by friends.

“This is my dream job,” she replied with a smile, pointing at the school building. It was one of those moments that was simple and brief, but also profound.

I do believe that life is transient, and the question of “what is enough” is an important one for everyone to ask themselves. You cannot intrinsically be happy if, in the deepest part of your soul, you do not have enough of what you believe you need.

Sadly, we live in a time where it’s easy to always feel a compulsion to climb, to yearn for more, and to chase a greater status. For many, there is never enough, and this, I think, is what causes some of the wealthiest people to ironically die feeling unfulfilled.

We’re always chasing greater returns in our finances, causing us to take on more risk, expenses, and complications. We’re always chasing a bigger home, a better car, a better school for our kids, and a better city to live in. We chase with a vehement and rabid obsession that can bring out the worst in us, when simplicity is the true solution to our problem. I’m guilty of it too! And regardless of how good we seem to have it, a media report springs up about how we could potentially have things even better, if we’d just buy the latest fad!

How can I define what is enough for me now, if it cannot be found in something bigger that I can buy one day in a hypothetical future?

The answer to this question, I think, can be found in the past. There are values that we can derive from the past that are too neglected in the present.

What are these values?

Simplicity and frugality are high on the list. Regardless of your wealth, they lead to peace of mind. They nullify the need to chase and validate beyond what is necessary.

Also high on my list are the willingness to help people in need, and to love and be loved. I don’t think I need to justify these.

Simple, but I don’t see how these values aren’t needed today!

Ironically, when we do these things well, money tends to take care of itself. Work becomes a more fulfilling duty and we become more valued citizens.

I compare the aforementioned teacher with some of the corporate hyenas I knew, who obsessed over their job titles, their offices, their out-of-scope mortgages, their hybrid cars, their hypothetical promotions, and their social media statuses. Their offices tended to have the door closed–how dare the cubicle lemmings speak to them without knocking!

That closed office door was, to me, symbolic of the hole in their core. What compels a person to work somewhere nicer than the company’s fellow men and women, besides the need to flaunt status?

I recall a date I had, many years ago, when the woman asked me, “Do you have your own office at work?” “No”, I answered, “I work in a cubicle.” She then taunted me with the revelation that she had her own office, as well as people who answered to her. She got me, I guess. I wasn’t one of the “chosen ones.”

But did she have enough?

If you choose not to play their game, but live a prosperous and giving life regardless, are you really losing?

Finally, I’ll compare the corporate hyenas I knew with the aforementioned teacher I spoke with. The salary of the corporate crony is probably much higher, yet I’d venture to guess that they also have more debt–possibly much more. More importantly, they have greater stress due to the complications their status chasing has gathered.

Most importantly, the teacher has the crown jewel that they might die having never found: enough.


Teacher Field Trip Day

I was finishing lunch at the primary school cafeteria on Thursday when I found out that my afternoon high school class was canceled. Eureka! I was done for the day. I teach at two different schools–a primary school in the morning, then a high school in the afternoon. It’s an interesting contrast to say the least.

I’ve found that building friendships in China is a slower, more gradual process than in America. People often have a natural inclination to be reserved and shy with strangers here, and it takes time to get past that barrier. There has to be a well established sense of trust to have camaraderie. At first, it can seem as though people are cold relative to their American counterparts. After getting to know you (over months, not weeks), though, interactions feel about as normal as anywhere.

To celebrate “International Women’s Day”, the primary school teachers were taking a field trip to a local movie theater.

“Since you are done for the day, why don’t you come with us?” One of the teachers suggested.

“What movie are we seeing?”

She then searched through her smartphone for the English translation of the movie name. “Fierce China,” she said. “I think that’s what the name means in English.”

“Is the movie in English?” I asked.

“No, all Chinese. It is about the strength and power of China. Maybe you can try and learn Chinese by watching!”

“I’m not sure. Maybe I should get back to the high school.” Considering the movie plotline and the fact that I wouldn’t understand a single word, it didn’t sound like I’d get much out of a viewing. Then again, it was free.

“There is free popcorn and coke too,” she remarked.

“Okay, in that case I’m in,” I said. I quickly got on the charter bus that drove us to the theater.

Even after studying Chinese for a few months and living in the country for half a year, I understood approximately 5% of the film. Not to bash the movie, but as a result of not knowing what was being said, I dozed off about 30 minutes in. I was able to gather that it was a documentary.

It was a worthwhile trip nonetheless; Chinese popcorn is fantastic. Unlike American popcorn, it’s caramel coated. Thus, it’s much sweeter. I had two small boxes.

After the film, I communicated with another teacher via his phone app. You speak into the app, which then translates your words into any intended language.

“Did you see the strength of China today?” the teacher asked me via the app. He was sporting a huge grin.

“Yes, it was amazing to see the growth of this country,” I responded. I’m always sure to keep an upbeat and encouraging response. What can I say, I like making people happy.

After a boast, it is Chinese custom to say something humble and self-critical. That’s exactly how the teacher responded.

“China’s growth rate is 6% now, which is slower than in the past. India’s is higher, and India also aims to be competitive on a global scale.”

“China’s growth is practical and impressive for its size,” I responded. “And Chinese companies are improving rapidly.”

The teacher’s grin widened more. “I would love to speak with you more!” he said as we left the bus.

We’re a few weeks into the spring term here. It’s March 9, yet the city had 6 inches of snow this week and daytime highs below 20. Needless to say, I’m ready for spring!

Changchun translates to “long spring” in English. I asked a teacher when this “long spring” would commence. He smiled and exclaimed, “It is just a name. We have a very spring here. Long winter!”