Friday, November 14, 2014

Heating in China

They've turned on the heat in Dalian. Actually, in most of China. It's all scheduled by government decree: if you're north of the government-defined Mason-Dixon Line of China, you get heat on such-and-such date, and it gets turned off on such-and-such date. South of that line, there’s no heating. By common assent, the coldest you’ll ever feel is living in an apartment on the wrong side of the heating-line of China.

In the old days, the heat was provided by the government, but nowadays it's from a company (probably government-owned or government-sponsored). You pay the equivalent of about $250 by a date-certain, and you get radiator heat throughout the government-defined winter. If it's cold before or after the pre-defined dates, tough noogies. If it's warm before or after the pre-defined dates, open your windows. If you don't pay by that date-certain, you don't get heat. Just like Obamacare, if you don't enroll in time, you pay the penalty: in this case, a long, COLD winter.

We paid, of course, and our radiator is nice and warm. But it was making a lot of noise the other day, so Ma Lei opened an escape valve to let some air out. The water that squirted out with it went into a little watering jug, but got quickly poured down the drain. I figured we should use it to water the plants, or give it to the dogs, but she'd already disposed of it before I even had a chance to ask. "It's not safe," she said. I sort of shook my head at that. What do you mean it's not safe?

Ma Lei told me that the residents of her former apartment used to collect water from their radiators to wash their clothes, in order to save a few pennies on their water bill. With the whole building doing so, the company that was responsible for steam heating was losing money, so they started putting antifreeze into the radiator water. The first few people who didn't recognize what they were washing with, ruined their entire wash loads. I hope no one gave it to their dogs to drink.

In other heat-related news, Ma Lei's Little Brother told her that the guy at the head of the company supplying heat for the apartment complex just behind where Little Brother lives, absconded with all the money the residents had paid for their heating. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that's probably about $150K, perhaps a bit more. Once the money’s been paid and stolen, that’s it: they’re all going to be freezing this winter. And for what?

If the guy managed to escape down one of the tropical wormholes south of here, he could live on that for a while. But really, it's not much of an annuity for the entire rest of one's life. And if he doesn't manage to escape the country, he's going to find it was a very bad bargain. And also, he can never return to China. 

The Chinese government isn't very efficient, but it has a long memory. The papers are full of stories of people who absconded after committing crimes, then 25 years later they returned for what they thought was a brief visit — perhaps a parent's funeral — only to find themselves quickly clapped in irons upon their arrival.

Maybe the guy had already been collecting illicit money for a while, and he just needed $150K to top off his retirement fund. But seriously, I can't believe it was worth it.

Nevertheless, the people in the apartment building are well and truly scrod. In China, if your money didn't get to the proper authorities, it's not going to be the authorities who lose out. Get yourself a lawyer, try to raise a court case, protest all the way up to Beijing, and all you'll earn for yourself is an illegal detention for being a troublemaker.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In order to make a little extra money so my wife can open her pet supply shop next year, I recently started teaching a few classes on weekends at a English school for little kids (ages 4-7). It's exhausting work — not exactly what I had in mind when I went for my PhD — but that's where the money is, and we need money to start the business.
The first couple of days, I absolutely hated it. 
I'm not really teaching English. I'm teaching words, and playing games. "Father." "Grandfather." "Giraffe." "Play." Walk in a circle around flash cards laid out on the ground, until I call out "Shirt!" and they all jump on the right one. Dance around the room to a song that goes "Itchy, Itchy Insect, i-i-i!"
The most complicated sentence I got to teach them, the one that made them tremble with fear whenever it popped up on the screen, was "I like to do things with my family." (Incidentally, I'm kind of on their side: "do things" is far too vague a verb to be throwing at a five year-old ESL student.) The ones they could manage were things like "I like to cook with my mother" and "I like to play with my sister."
The job isn't mentally stimulating in the slightest, but it is physically exhausting. At first, I was thinking "why the hell am I doing this?!"
Eventually, I came to enjoy the work quite a bit, just as I imagine I'll enjoy fatherhood. The kids are adorable, and their personalities are disarmingly simple.
There's poor William, who enthusiastically volunteers to answer every question, but consistently gets them all wrong. I swear, his percentage of correct answers would be below random, if anyone bothered to conduct a study. But he is undaunted: he jumps up at every opportunity to jab at the wrong answer on the screen. Especially when we get to use the extended magnetic pointer to bang dents in the Smartboard at the front of the classroom. He wields that thing like a monkey with an epee. I expect eyes to be lost at any moment.
Then there's Tony, whose father already taught him the alphabet, so he's at a tremendous advantage. Just as adventurous as William, yet armed with a lot more knowledge. He's got the alphabet down, though when you put it together into actual words, he's not always on the spot.
Little Sir, the youngest of the boys, jumpy and distracted. He's smart as a whip, and gets the material when his mind focuses on it for even half a second. But it doesn't always do so.
Grace, the older girl in her class (at all of 5, I think it is). She's too shy to jump up most of the time, but she usually knows the answer if I ask a direct question.
The one who intrigues me the most, perhaps, is Yun Hang, the tiniest little apple in the class. Her features are exquisitely sculpted, like a classic baby doll — she'll be a model in 15 years, if she wants to be — and she's as silent as a doll in my class. If I ask her to say a word, she mumbles it. A sentence as long as "I like to shop with my mother," she can barely manage even to mumble. Yet she's got a functional grasp on the vocabulary that bests even Tony with his alphabetic advantage. She understands and gets the right answer, even if she can't express it. She never, ever volunteers: I always have to pick on her, but she almost never disappoints.
I look forward to Ma Lei starting the pet supply shop, so I can quit this job and we can focus our attention on something with greater long-term benefits and more intellectual challenges. However, in the mean time I've found out that teaching the little critters can be fun and interesting.