The London Eye

No, it’s not the name of a clandestine underground newspaper printed in secret. It’s a huge Ferris wheel new to London as of 2000. To get to the eye I took the Underground to Embankment, walked across the bridge at Charring Cross station, down to the other side, through the sea of street performers posing as robots while keeping my eyes firmly ahead, and straight up to the ticket counter.

Tickets to the London Eye can be bought ahead of time or on site–they’re cheaper online. You can choose a simple ride around the wheel or add a river cruise or a glass of champagne followed by immediate regret for having drank a glass of carbonated alcohol a million feet in the air. There are also fast track passes for the burgiose, which are a good idea if you’re in a rush. At night expect to see a few love birds, photographers whose cameras have apertures the size of a football field and wedding parties if not the actual wedding. Twenty-five people fit into a capsule/car so the line can go fast when it’s only a few rows off the ramp. Otherwise expect a wait.

If you’ve never been on a gigantic Ferris wheel of doom before, be warned–they don’t stop to let you on and off. You take a running start and jump in like a really lame version of Evel Knievel. It takes about 30 minutes to go around once, at which point you have plenty of time to muster your courage for the jump off.

Inside are small touch screens that point out attractions and sites once you’ve identified Big Ben and run out of off-hand London architectural knowledge. On a clear day you are said to be able to see 25 miles, including a lot of people looking up at the sky, surprised that there is actually a clear day to be had in London.

If you’re a fan of pretending people are ants from 440 feet in the air and cackling madly while commanding them to dance for your pleasure, this is the attraction for you.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Persistent American Who Just Wanted A Sandwich

If you’re a lover of Sherlock Holmes in any of his innumerable permutations (yes I did just link to that last one), no trip to London would be complete without a stop to 221b Baker St. When Sir Arthur Doyle originally penned the stories, there was no such address. Today there is, however, and it houses the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Entry costs £8 (~$12) for adults, £5 for children, and it is open every day of the year (except Christmas) from 9.30 AM to 6PM.

Walking to the museum from the Baker St Station takes about two minutes, and while you’re in the area you can check out a bunch of small shops selling British rock n’ roll paraphernalia. 
Buy tickets at the gift shop to the right of 221b after you pick up your obligatory souvenir pipe and magnifying glass. One more door down is Mrs. Hudson’s cafe where you can grab a bite to eat from one of the ladies dressed in Victorian garb. Also, if you know a ‘presentable young man’ who is at least 6′ tall, the museum is hiring more Victorian policemen to pose for photographs with children and the smitten female–and male–tourist.
221b itself is three floors–when you’re let in, run up to the top floor and work your way down to avoid the other people–recreated on the first two to resemble how Holmes and Watson would have lived. Avid (rabid) fans will take note of the envelopes impaled on the mantle, bullet holes in the wall, books about bee keeping, a medicine bag with the initials ‘J.H.W’, a worn violin, and other items. The casual observer will notice a lot of junk as the museum doesn’t really explain what you’re looking at. Kind of an ‘indier than thou’ fan’s paradise, actually.

The third floor is filled with wax caricatures that I can’t bring myself to think of as I only got rid of the nightmares last week.

I think ‘curios’ means playing cards and shot glasses.

There’s also a guestbook where you can leave your undying love for Holmes. If you’re not in London, though, take heart–the museum has hired someone to answer letters written to the famous address. So grab your Hello Kitty stationary and write away.
And if you’re a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, you can always make your own tour around places seen in the series, much to the amusement and exasperation of your British peers.
Speedy’s is the new face of 221b and quite easy to get to, if not actually eat at as they close fairly early. I went there four times and managed to miss it each time, each instance muttering “I’ll be back,” in a California governor-esque voice.
Despite the heavy eye-rolling of the Korean exchange students who live above the cafe and ‘in’ Sherlock’s fictional digs when they catch you snapping pictures, Speedy’s itself is pretty much rolling in the publicity, going so far to have a contest for fans to design their new Sherlock sandwich. However, be warned if you are in the area during filming, you can’t get close to the cafe and will be asked to move away as recently fans have been swarming the area and being all manners of distracting. Think ‘The Beatles’ landing in the USA. No, seriously.

Stonehenge, Windsor & Bath

A month ago I had the privilege to visit England during its coldest spring in the last 100 years. Severely underdressed, I hopped on a bus one day for an eleven hour journey from London to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath. It’s a fairly common day excursion for the curious traveller and if tour busses don’t sound like a special slice of Hell to you, I highly recommend it.
If Buckingham Palace is where the Queen does paperwork and makes important phone calls, Windsor Castle is where she checks Facebook for six hours and plays with corgis on the weekend. It’s essentially a home away from home, though one she’s said she prefers. The castle is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world, as I learned during a failed round of Trivia at my hometown bar.
If you’re not trapped on a tour bus, getting to Windsor is easy via train. Just head to the Windsor & Eton Riverside station. 
If you have a companion who is particularly petrified by dolls or a severe case of microphobia, be sure to lure them into Queen Mary’s Doll House which boasts somewhere between a hundred and a bajillion tiny little itty bitty things. Feast your eyes on tiny vacuums, chairs, houses, and soulless eyes. Alas, pictures are not allowed indoors so please imagine a scenario in which someone hit your life with a shrink ray
There are also gorgeous portraits and furniture and weapons on display in the State Rooms, one of the largest being the room dedicated to England’s victory at Waterloo against Napoleon. American tourists will immediately notice a painting of a man who has a striking resemblance to George Washington and, eyebrows knit together in confusion, will ask the closest guide Who the hell is he? Is that–? and the guide will hand over a shock blanket and tea and calmly inform that no, no it’s actually someone else.
Also around 11AM you can catch the changing of the guard by St. George’s Chapel. The chapel is the burial place of 10 monarchs, one of whom you literally have to step on if you want to make it through the whole thing. (He kind of deserved it, I’m thinking was their reasoning.) St. George’s is deceiving from the outside. It actually goes on and on, so allow yourself more than two minutes to explore it.
For some unknown reason, ever since I was in elementary school, I really wanted to see Stonehenge. I also thought it was in Ireland when I was seven, but I digress. I have no idea why I was so bent on seeing it, out of all the places in the world. It is, literally, a collection of rocks. While their positioning is, for someone who is an avid Jenga player, impressive, again–rocks.

I’m not sure what my seven-year-old self expected.

In a few years there will be a new Stonehenge visitor’s center farther away from the monument. (They’re looking for a new manager, by the way, if you’ve got your CV handy.) Until then, your bus parks on the other side of the highway and you run through an underpass to come up on the other side. You make your way around Stonehenge–a fifteen minute walk or five minutes if it’s raining and you’re wearing the stupidest shoes imaginable–and then you return to the underpass, cross it off your bucket list, maybe check in on Foursquare and call it a day.

The truth behind Stonehenge has been lost to time, but I’ve seen some convincing arguments for a worldly connection.

Also, apparently a guy walked into an auction and bought Stonehenge in 1915 to give to his ‘none too pleased’ wife. Makes coming home with a new power tool or Mercedes look a little better. Or worse, actually.
When the ancient Romans entered England, they were, understandably, depressed. They had traded sunny Mediterranean weather for, well, pretty much the opposite. Somehow–either by accident or because one of the locals showed them–the Romans stumbled upon England’s only natural hot spring, and the first Sandals Resort was essentially born.
For 50p (~$1) you can sample the mineral-laden water thought to have cured many of their aches, pains, and near-fatal wounds. It sort of tastes like tap water from a Chinese restaurant in Philly. But for 50p it is probably the cheapest beverage you will encounter in England, so bottoms up.
Bath Abbey is a gorgeous piece of architecture, particularly due to its interior fan vaulting, something I’m told is fairly unique to England.
There is a fee to enter the abby. In fact there is a fee to enter most historical churches in England yet, conversely, museums are free to the public.
An hour or two in Bath isn’t nearly enough. Had I taken the bus tour again, I would have skipped the return ride to London and spent the night. Trains between Bath and London take just 90 minutes.

Hello again & AC Beer Fest 2013

Long time no update!
A lack of updates, however, has not meant a lack of excitement in my life. It has just been spread out to weekend excursions and moments that, when compared to a life in a foreign country, didn’t seem as exciting or worth writing about.
Which is a bunch of bologna because if they weren’t worth it, I would have hopped on a plane back to China months ago.
So as I prepare for life’s next adventures, I’m dusting off the photo album/Flickr app on my phone and posting once again. My writing is a bit rusty–I’ve probably deleted and re-written the above words twice by the time you get to the end of this particular sentence–and I need practice. Bear with me as I find my words again.
(For examples of my Shakespearean prose, feel free to read posts under the ‘what the hell is this’ tag as crab vending machines and Chinese school lunches best spark my muse.)

Let’s get this started with a charming event I attended the first weekend this April–The Atlantic City Beer & Music Fest.

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This was the fest’s eighth year in the Atlantic City Convention Center and, as someone who has attended probably 30 conventions (most of an incredibly nerdy nature), this was so well-organized that I could have fallen down on my knees and wept salty tears into my IPA. 
Tickets are available online–I highly recommend getting them beforehand!–and you can have them emailed to you or pick them up at will-call. We arrived to the convention center maybe 20 minutes before the fest officially started and there was no line to have your ticket picked up or processed. We got our bands (DD wrist bands are available too) and tiny mugs and waited just five minutes to be let into the beer-consumption area:
AC Beer fest 2013

Once inside, you are treated to samples from 90 different breweries from PA, NJ, MD, Japan, Germany–all over the world. They even had a beer I enjoyed frequently in Thailand, so color me impressed. And I know I say ‘samples’ but $50 never bought you so much beer. Besides beer, your $50 ticket also gives you access to music on the live stage!

And barber shop quartets that sneak up on you and start singing for no reason!
AC Beer fest 2013
Free mustache rides!
AC Beer fest 2013
The silent disco!
AC Beer fest 2013
Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘What is a silent disco?’

Somewhere, someplace, someone thought to themselves–how can I make a bunch of drunk people dancing look even more ridiculous? (Why he desired this, I don’t know. I can only assume he’s related to the scientists in Switzerland who asked how they could possibly make a miniature sun on planet Earth.)

The answer to that question is to rig the DJ with a transmitter and give every dancing fool a pair of headphones that sync up to the same song. Observe:

 

 

I only wish I had captured the madness when Kung Fu Fighting played. Alas, I was too busy practicing my hadoken and crane pose.

Also mechanical bull riding and dunk tanks filled with local AC strippers!

(not pictured)
There are three different three hour sessions for the beer fest; Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening. So far survey says that Friday evening is the best as the brewers still have plenty of swag to go around (Tote bags! Glorious tote bags!) and patience to deal with your drunken antics. The Sheraton is practically connected to the convention center, but Ceasar’s palace is a short trek away. If you’d rather not sleep over in AC, there was a late Amtrak train that went from AC to Philly. And walking to the station from the convention center is ridiculously easy. Also, be sure to download the official app to keep track of what beers you’ve had for at least the first hour until the stout starts kicking in.
If you’re a beer fan, silent disco fan, or tote bag fan, give the fest a go. I will definitely be returning another year; I’ll be the first one in the Silent Disco play pen busting it out to Thriller. Come say hi.

Answers from the English abyss

I’ll be putting up one final post about China and my thoughts on my experience there, once I get said thoughts gathered. Unfortunately the internet in Nanjing was simply atrocious the past few months and it’s been impossible for me to update.

In the mean time, enjoy the following: I asked my students to write about where they want to go and where they don’t want to go, and why. Some selections for you, the ones with stars being ones I picked as ‘the best’ for a prize:

I want to go to Greenland. Because I can ski and go ice-skating. I don’t want to go to Libya. Because they are fighting.

I want to go to Turkey. Because the money is cheap. I don’t want to go to Korea. Because the sushi is too hot. I don’t like hot food.

I want to go to England. Because there is a beautiful castle and horse guard. I don’t want to go to Ireland. Because it is very green. (I don’t like green.)

*I want to go to Japan. Because I want to help many earthquake people.

I want to go to Ireland. Because it is very beautiful. Because it is very good. Because it is very small. Because it is very new. I don’t want to go to Russia. Because it is very hot.

*I want to go to the USA because the USA has a big Disney playground. Because Obama is handsome, because I want to see a basketball game.

*I don’t want to go to the girl toilet because I am a boy.

*I want to go to Brazil because the grass is green and I can play soccer. I don’t want to go to the North Pole because it’s cold.

I don’t want to go to Japan because they are our enemy.

*I want to go to Holland because they have many cheeses and I like cheese.

I don’t want to go to America because there are tornadoes.

I want to go to America because that’s where Transformers 3 is.

cheating in China

I’m not sure if it only happens in the foreign teacher classes, but my colleagues and I have been having a hell of a time stopping students from cheating on our finals. Out of the twenty classes I teach, there were only three where I didn’t catch cheating. I had students blatantly turning in their seats to tell friends the test answers, girls switching papers and taking the test for their friends, boys looking at answer sheets in desks, and even one student going through my folders for the answer sheet and writing them down on a note.

(My final test is not hard. It’s vocabulary that we’ve been studying for the past six weeks. Multiple choice. Arranged in three sections. Very, very, laughably easy.)

I’m not an expert on China by any means, just a casual observer casually observing a culture of cheating and wondering where it comes from.

One of my Chinese friends has impeccable English. Her part-time job for a few months was to collect a fake ID card, go to another Chinese city, pretend to be a student and take the SATs or TEFL for her student client. Underground businesses like these — selling test-takers — aren’t rare by any means; she says that every time she’s taken a test like this, she’s known several other professional test-takers in the room with her.

These tests determine if the Chinese students have the English skills to get into a college in the US, UK, Australia, etc. (My friend relishes the fact that once the cheating students get there, they will likely have to drop out because they can’t pay off anyone to speak English for them in daily life…) Coincidentally, her American boyfriend was on the other side of the issue: When he attended college in the States, many Chinese students went over to study abroad with high TEFL scores, yet a number of them couldn’t speak past a middle school level. He worked in the school cafeteria where all study abroad students automatically were offered a job; many of the Chinese students with high TEFL scores were relegated to kitchen duties because they couldn’t communicate with the diners.

There’s also the issue of plagiarism on the college level, and not just students, but professors. A simple Google search brings up plenty of blogs about the issue. It’s kind of a joke between the expats in Nanjing that a Chinese diploma isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on because the standards of education are somewhat low. Most expat students study Chinese — the one subject that is, obviously, worth while — or stay for one semester of easy As and cheap beer.

Though I wonder if these kids cheating in my class are actually pretty clever; with the amount of bribery that goes on in the adult world in China, they may just be getting some practice. The thing that gets me, though, is that a lot of the times the kids I caught cheating were intelligent ones who would have passed easily anyway. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t fly in my classroom and a few unhappy students got their first zero grade ever. Hopefully it’ll be their last…

Pets in Nanjing, China

Just some photos and a little food for thought. CNN recently did a story about live animals sold as keychains in Beijing. It’s not limited to the capital city, however; you can buy these keychains in Nanjing as well.

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These keychains were in the Confucius Temple market in Nanjing. There are also several pet stores were animals are sometimes crammed into cages. Some are more fortunate and have space, but turtles and smaller animals seem to be particularly unlucky.

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I had the misfortune of seeing a deceased bunny tossed into the garbage. No lunch was eaten that day by yours truly.

Also, once spring rolls around rabbits and gerbils go on sale, typically outside of elementary and high schools for the kids alongside comic books and candy. These rabbits were driven to school by motorcycle, then the seller waits outside. My friend bought a rabbit last week for 20 RMB, or $3 US. Inbreeding is fairly common; the rabbit my friend bought is blind, much to his surprise. I used to have a blind cat and was able to tell pretty quickly with the aid of a pen light.

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But, as for the people buying the pets, I can say that dogs and birds are usually treated very well by their owners. Dogs are the pets of choice, and enjoy long walks around town usually without a leash. Men buy birds and have clubs outside in parks where they show them off, talking about the best type of seed. Usually if a pet can survive the actual pet store, it seems like they’ll have a good life afterwards.

Anyway. It’s tough resisting buying all of the turtles and setting them free in a lake, regardless…

pictures from the English abyss

One of the interesting things about teaching any language is when you start to notice the little things like letters, punctuation and syntax that can change a sentence drastically. Usually if it’s a pretty hilarious mistake I take the time to correct the sentence, but an additional high-five is given to the student at the very least. 3rd graders are at that perfect age where they don’t have any inhibitions–for the most part–about trying even if it means they might be wrong. That at least should be rewarded.

But now I know why my Japanese professors got such a kick out of correcting our papers and tests…

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And sometimes, it’s not really a mistake in any sense of the word. But things that sound great in one language give pause when translated directly;

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This last one is grammatically correct; I just like the thought of Tigger giving Eyore a John Wayne-style haymaker.

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matchmaker market

Springtime is upon us and love is in the air, especially alongside West Beijing Road where an open-air matchmaker market has sprung up.

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Hopefuls compile short biographies about themselves (date of birth, job, height, etc.) and a list of what they’re looking for in a mate. Then the info is printed onto signs, pink for women and blue for men, and hung like laundry out to dry. Find someone you like? Leave your phone number on the placard.

Interestingly enough, most of the attendees to the markets are parents with thick journals, copying down phone numbers and bios for their daughters and sons. A friend even suggested to me that many of the bios are actually written by parents—which explains why some of them require a potential mate to be respectful to their own parents. Who wants a daughter- or son-in-law that isnt’?

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About 90% of the female signs say that they want a mate who has his own apartment or house. Unfortunately, Nanjing is pretty notorious for expensive apartments, leading to a lack of individuals who actually own one. The apartment system is pretty interesting; people don’t really rent apartments, instead they buy them. But you don’t really ‘own’ the apartment after you buy it, so you can’t leave it to your children in a will. This is done—supposedly–because of the high population in China; everyone gets a fair chance at an apartment instead of them being left in one family through generations.

The male signs with the most phone numbers—like this one below—are written by men who have their own living accommodations and work for the government, earning a nice steady paycheck.

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This sign says that he’s looking for someone who was born in the year of the rabbit, but tigers are okay too.

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Another good way to get phone numbers is to be a lone foreign girl, presumably perusing the signs looking for love.

Woman: Hey! Hey, what are you looking for?
Me: What?
Woman: What kind of man are you looking for?
Me: Er, no, I have a boyfriend, he’s standing over there–
Woman: Then do you have a cousin? Or a sister in Nanjing?
Me: I… need to go…

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Have another intriguing discussion said behind my back at the matchmaker market:

Man: Hey, why do foreign girls have such a nice curvy-cut figure?
Another man: Don’t you know? It’s because their diet is different from Chinese girls. The foreigners eat raw beef.

I don’t eat raw beef, just for the record.

an outsider’s thoughts on sex-ed and such in China

Thought #1: You know that you’ve lived in China for a few months when you get on a public bus and all of the adverts are for abortions and you don’t even blink.

This one advertises them for about 300 yuan, or, say, $50 US abouts. The commercials on the TV have green hills and girls dancing in white skirts. I thought they were for laundry detergent until I saw the hospital name.

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Thought #2: Birth control pills are available in China over the counter for about $3 for a monthly pack, compared to the needed prescription and outrageous prices in most western nations. (I’m looking at you, America.) However, most people here don’t know too much about how the pills work—a friend who’d never seen the pills even suggesting to me that you don’t really need to take a pill every day, just the days that you plan to have intercourse. (And yes, the instructions in the box are written in Chinese.) And those people that do know about the pills believe they mess with your body’s natural chemistry and energy too much to take them. So birth control pills are not a big ticket item; there’s actually only ever about two or three brands to even choose from at the pharmacy. Culturally, the pill just isn’t big in China. It’s easily available and affordable, but the idea of messing with the natural order of a woman’s body is unappealing to many.

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Thought #3: Sex-ed in the classroom was explained to me by a friend as a chapter in a biology book Chinese high school students read for class, the teacher asking the next day if there were any questions, no one being brave enough to raise a hand, and on to the next chapter. Parent’s don’t typically broach the subject either. Some simple math for you: Lack of sex ed + wariness of birth control pills + cheap abortions = a high amount of abortions in China.

Thought #4: The one-child rule is pretty heavily enforced. Unless… you live in the countryside where nothing is really enforced, have twins, have an additional child overseas, pay the hefty fine, or get divorced and have another child with your new spouse. Or find some other loophole, of course.

Thought #5: Just a random, interesting note: It’s illegal in China for a doctor to tell the expecting parents the gender of their unborn child. According to my friends, a lot of the younger generation don’t hope for a girl or a boy one way or the other, though. Kids are doted upon by their parents—and grandparents—which sometimes can backfire and turn them into ‘Little Emperors’ or stressed out students burdened with the thought that they’re the only one around to support their parents when they retire.

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