Just Do It

admin | Decision Making | Friday, September 26th, 2008

It is only when you take control of your own life that you feel alive.”

Ma Jian from his book Red Dust

Recently, I’ve been agonizing over making a decision: to return to my old life as a financial guy or to move forward as a teacher.  I recently was able to make this decision and I learned a few things along the way that I’d like to share.

If you read my bio on how I decided to come to China you could probably guess that I have a tough time making decisions: it took me two years to decide to leave my cushy Finance job in Toronto, tell my folks and friends I was giving it all up to be an English Teacher in China.  Over those two years, I agonized over my decision; looked at it over and over; let the decision completely consume my life.  Then finally, I couldn’t stand it any more, and I decided.

After I decided, it was terrifying, but also exhilarating.  And I felt lighter, like a rush of energy was released when I finally decided and committed to the decision.  I truly felt like I understand Ma Jian’s amazing quote.  Then all that was required was following it through, one step at a time.

This time, I was beginning my normal process of agonizing over the decision, when I spoke with a friend, who also had to make a bigger, life-changing decision.  I asked him what process he uses to make his decisions and this what he said.

  1. Decide on how you want to make the decision – have some rules you’d like to follow through the decision.  His were: 1) Be honest with yourself, 2) Keep a sense of humour, and 3) Have integrity.  I thought those were solid, so I tried to use them too.  I really liked this approach to have some criteria to help make the decision.  I also really liked his idea to keep a sense of humour.  That gets you through just about anything with the right perspective.
  2. Realize that the decision is going to be both logical and emotional and probably more emotional.  Most decisions are emotional, but we rationalize it later.  This is where being truly honest with yourself, with what you want is so important.  I find most of the time, I know what I should do deep inside my belly, only I don’t do it.
  3. Plan for the turbulence. After a decision is made, there will be times of second-guessing and doubt afterwards.  So if you can plan for this ahead of time, you’ll likely be able to follow through with your decision better.  For me, I had 3 things to keep me focused: 1) tell my old company no; 2) look into schools back in Canada, and 3) tell my parents.  I did or started the first two and will do the third this weekend.

Another thing that I think helped me with this decision was to follow Confucius’ advice: think about it twice, the decide; two times is enough. I did this by using the old, pros and cons list, weighing what I’d probably gain or lose with each decision.  Also, by putting the time limit on the decision limited my agonizing period.

The most important thing I did this time, was asking for help from a friend.  I asked my girlfriend to help me make this decision.  I felt it was a biggie, and by talking it through with her really helped me realize what I wanted and how to be honest with myself.  For big decisions, talking it through with a friend who can tell you things clearly and honestly can help you understand the problem better.

Hopefully, some of these learnings could help you if you’re stuck in making a decision in the future, I know they helped me.

Analects of Confucius – Ch.16

admin | Analects of Confucius | Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

Again, here are some lessons from the first teacher, Confucius, or Kong Fu Zi.

10/ Confucius said, “A gentleman concentrates on the following nine things: seeing clearly when he uses his eyes; hearing acutely when he uses his ears; looking mild when it comes to facial expressions; appearing sedate when it comes to demeanor; being sincere when he speaks; being conscientious when it comes to his office responsibility; seeking advice when he is in the face of difficulty; foreseeing the consequence when he gets angry; asking himself whether it is right when he wants to gain something.”

This is a good guide to follow.  I wonder how much of the Chinese culture is a result of Confucius’ teachings, as it is common for a Chinese person to keep mild facial expressions and to not show his emotions. The other pieces of advice seem easy to follow, but is it truly easy to see clearly?  Or actually hear properly?  Like when you ask someone how they are doing today, do you truly listen for their answer?  Often I don’t.  Listening is one skill that I can definitely work on improving.

Eye Contact in the Classroom

admin | Teach English in China | Monday, September 22nd, 2008

I never realized how important eye contact was in the classroom, until my student told me.  She said, why didn’t you look at me in the class? She said it made her feel uncomfortable, my not looking at her.  Luckily it was my girlfriend, who was doing a mock lesson with me, so she felt more comfortable giving me this feedback.  But before that I never realized how eye-contact could affect the classroom.

Since then, I make a point early on in my lessons to make good eye contact with the students, especially during the introduction and warmers to show them I’m listening and I’m interested in talking with them for the next 55 minutes.

Here is a great resource The Internet TESL Journal, I recently stumbled upon that talks about eye contact in the classroom.  I had known and used this site before for English Corner questions, but I didn’t spend time digging around the other tabs, mainly because I didn’t like the look.  Today, as I had a class cancelled and some free time, I started digging and found out that this site is a gold-mine for an ESL teacher or someone who is interested in learning a second language.  I highly recommend you look around the different tabs and I’m sure you can find a few articles, lesson plans, or games that can improve your classes.

Give Him a Good Name

Matt | Picking English Names | Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Being an English teacher in China gives you some great opportunities – to meet interesting people, to get treated like a treasured object for being a teacher, to hear your students’ laugh when you speak in Chinese – but one of the best and oddest responsibilities is that once in a while a student will ask you to give them an English name.

When I was first asked to do this I remember being nervous and I felt a little odd giving this student a name they may keep for the rest of their life.

Later on, while I was teaching business English in a bank, I met the group I’d be teaching and I met their boss.  He was a serious looking man, who didn’t speak much English.  His role was simply to approve of the teacher, but he wouldn’t attend the class because I think he didn’t want to lose face in front of his subordinates.  So when I met him, shook his hand, accepted his business card and heard him say his name, I wasn’t quite sure if I heard him right, but his name was…. Cheryl. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had a girl’s name.  Nor did I have a chance later on, unfortunately.

But I learned that giving a name to someone is a big responsibility.

Since then I’ve given lots of people English names. I try to give names that 1) I like, 2) that I think sound good with their full names, and 3) that seem to suit the individual.  Also I try to stay away from such common names: Johnny and Jenny if possible.  I’m not sure if it’s because I miss my family or not, but I’ve named many students after my family: Hayley (x3), Jason (x2), Pat x1, Sam x1.  I may have named more than this, but this is all I can remember at this time.

The first question my no-name student will usually ask is:

“So what does Hayley mean?”

Because in Chinese all names, all characters, have a strong meaning.  So if the parents name their child “Emperor” then they expect big things from their kid.

So, when I explain that English names don’t really have meaning, that we simply pick a name we like or that sounds good they can’t understand.

Sometimes, students will pick their own names and you’ll get some interesting ones: Caesar (Emperor ideas?!), Qiao (likes to leave), Lebron, Sorcer (“I dropped the Y from sorcery”) and my favourite so far is definitely Dinosaur.

I will often try to persuade the students, with unique names, to change their name to something more mainstream.  On the one hand, I’m glad they pick a name they like.  On the other hand, I fear what people will think of them when they start work and he introduces himself as Dinosaur.

The last time I did tried to convince a student to change his name from Sorcer, he stubbornly said, “Why can’t I have this name?”  I said you can.  And I understand the importance in having a unique name, only I don’t want people to laugh at you.  But he didn’t understand.  So I said, what if my Chinese name was, “Gou Bu Li”, which literally means “Dog won’t even eat”.  This is a famous food here in China, it would be like someone being called a “Big Mac”.  He laughed.  Then he understood the reaction someone would get with an oddly-unique name.  So we settled on him thinking over: Ethan and Nathan.  It’s his name, so it’s his choice.

I also reminded him that, the good thing about English names is that if you don’t like your name, you can always change it. I do think it’s a good idea to have a name, as I think it shows you are interested in learning about the language and culture.

If you are ever stuck on helping your students pick an English name, here is a good site I found that actually does have English names with their meanings. So Hayley actually means “Heroine”, that’s pretty good,  Matthew means “Gift of the Lord” spot on there, Karena/Carena means “Pure One”.  These sound pretty good.

Remember to give your student a good name.  They’ll hopefully give you a good Chinese name too.

Analects of Confucius – Chapter 15

Matt | Analects of Confucius | Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Attached is the 15th chapter of Confucius, Kong Zi’s, classic, “Analects of Confucius.”  I love rereading these chapters and adding some of my favourites here as every time I read them it makes me think about things.  So here goes.

12/ Confucius said, “Worries will soon appear if one gives no thought to a long-term plan.

When I first read this, I soon realize why I was so worried.  I was about 30 living in China, teaching English, with a lot of thoughts and dreams, yet I didn’t have a long-term plan.  Since then, I still don’t have a long-term plan, I’m a few years older and more experienced, and a lot more worried.  So I believe this one is true.

15/ Confucius said, “Being strict with oneself and lenient to others is sure to save one from ill will.”

I like the thought of this one, that being tougher on yourself and more lenient to others is a good approach to follow.  Also by focusing on yourself, improving yourself, you are controlling really the only thing that you can.  By being lenient with others you’ll be forgiving them for mistakes made, or helping them understand the value of those mistakes.  Good ideas.

19/ Confucius said, “A gentleman fears his own lack of talent more than others’ failure to undersand him.”

I love this one as I read it to say that it’s more important that a person has skills and develops those skills, than it is for others’ to notice them.

24/ Zi Gong asked, “Is there a single word that a man can follow as his life guide?” Confucius said, “Yes.  It is perhaps, the word, forbearance‘. Do not impose upon others what you do not desire yourself.”

Here is the Golden Rule according to Confucius.  It is amazing that this rule has been used in almost every culture and religion known.

28/ Confucius said, “Be sure to look into the case if a man is disliked by all the people around him.  Be sure, too, to look into the case if he is like by all the people around him.”

This one touches close to home.  Be careful of people that is disliked by all.  As for being liked by all, this is something I have a problem with as I always try to be liked by all – having a high need for appreciation.  I believe it’s better to be seem as “fair” by everyone is more important that it is to be “liked”.  I got to work on this one.

30/ Confucius said, “Not to correct the mistake on has made is to err indeed.”

Mistakes are ok, I would argue they are essential in order to learn, but the important thing is to learn from them.

39/ Confucius said, “In education people, I treat everyone the same.”

Note: this could also be translated as, “Everyone is entitled to be educated.”

I like both quotes equally for different reasons.

41/ Confucius said, “it is enough that one’s words get the ideas across.”

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the importance of language and how language is a tool to be used.  In this case, I think being a functional tool, being “functionally fluent” is the most important thing.  Making mistakes are okay if you can get your ideas across.

Learning Chinese – Update

Matt | Learning Chinese | Monday, September 15th, 2008

Recently, I wrote a post about learning Chinese and “Putting in the Hours” and how I had made the most progress, when I had put in the most hours (at my peak 20 hours of class time per week).  Lately, I was “studying” by myself and not making progress or actually regressing.

Luckily for me, one reader took the time to add some comments to help me and anyone else who is interested in learning Chinese. Here are his comments.

“Put in the hours” is certainly the right attitude, if a somewhat crude measurement. You’ve got to balance hours with effort and good use of opportunities. From what you’ve written here, you’re biggest mistake was trying to ignore tones. Tones you have to drill hard right from the early stages; then as you progress you learn by osmosis how to fudge them. The rest, you’re spot on, bearing in mind that learning is largely a personal process (I’m assuming that the techniques you’ve settled on are what work for your personality and learning style. Some things I do different, but what I do different works for me). I would add only two things to what you have written here:

1: In my experience, and conversations with other learners of Chinese have backed this up, learning Chinese is an ‘advance-plateau; advance-plateau’ process, meaning you’ll get periods of good study and huge progress, then you’ll plateau for a while, then you’ll get another period of good study and huge progress, then plateau for a while. Nothing wrong with that, just learn to run with it. The plateaux are periods of consolidation and give your brain a bit of R’n’R and preparation for the next period of advance. (note: This is not an excuse to go backwards)

2: Opportunity: Use it. Make it. I’m sure from the attitude I’ve picked up from this post that you do this already, but get out there into some small, very ordinary neighbourhood near your place and get talking to the locals. Find restaurants and stores and market stalls where the people are friendly and chat with them. Take an interest in your local community, be open to being a part of it all. Textbook learning gives you a good base, real world fumbling consolidates and expands that base.

Great post, and I’ll be checking back to see how much progress you’ve made. Now I need to get off my arse and do all that study I promised myself I’d do over the summer…..

I agree with his comments on how to learn Chinese well.  My measurement, using total hours spent studying per month, and then putting a subjective comment on my level was definitely crude. I wanted to capture in a simple way that most of my progress was made when I put in the most effort/time in studying Chinese.

His comments on learning Chinese tones is very important. My tones are awful.  Looking back I wish I had focused on learning them initially.   Instead, what I did was try to ignore them.  I would do things like try to speak quickly to cover up the fact that I was mono-tone.  For those of you who don’t know, Chinese is a tonal language , so different tones equal different characters/ words. Mandarin has 4 tones: 1) high flat note, like you’re singing; 2) rising, like you’re asking a question, 3) dip, down then up, like when you’d say “really?” in a long drawn out way; 4) dropping tone, like when you use an exclamation mark; Damn! Actually, there is also a no tone sound.  So in total, there are 5 sounds.  Each tone, results in a different character = different meaning.  Sometimes the differences could be huge.


Shi1 /Shi/ = Poetry

Shi2 /Shir/ = number 10

Shi3 /Shii/ = shit

Shi4 /shih/ = to be

Lately, I’ve been focusing on tones.  My tonal studies has been greatly helped by using the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system for learning Mandarin that was invented before Pinyin.  Personally, I prefer the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system because each different tone is spelled slightly differently.  This makes it easier for me to remember that the words actually are different.  In my mind this is similar to in English the difference between: there, their and they’re.  While they sound identical, they’re spelled differently, so there is a difference between their meanings.

Getting back to the reader’s comments, I agree with him that start by learning the tones from the beginning of your Mandarin study is important. It’s like trying to learn English without learning the alphabet.

I also strongly agree with the comment about learning a language is an “advance-plateau, advance-plateau” process. I like how he takes it easy about enjoying the learning process and not pressing too hard.  Personally, I think to keep working, through the advance and the plateaus is useful too.

The last comment is the big one in my opinion: opportunity.  I have had an amazing opportunity to use Chinese everyday as I live in Beijing and have done so for the past 3 years.  Taking advantage of this opportunity is another story.  This is probably my biggest opportunity to improve.  Personally, I think you have to use a language – by speaking, listening, reading and writing – in order to learn it.  I believe that speaking is the most important part.  But for us shy people who don’t like to make mistakes, it’s tough.  But to learn the language it must be done.  Speak and yea shall receive.

As for my progress since my last post, while it isn’t fantastic it still has been an improvement.

Goal: study 5 hours per week

Actuals weeks:

  1. 5 hours
  2. 3 hours
  3. 3 hours
  4. 3 hours

What I noticed, was that even being short of my goal, simply having some routine to study Chinese has improved by focus on the language and my enjoyment.  So I will continue with my goal of 5 hours per week, planning to have a better second month.

Thank you again for your comments.  I really enjoyed learning how you study and I will continue to use them to improve my Chinese studying.

Zai Jian (Goodbye)


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