Category Archives: Uncategorized

Blogging 201: Nailing down your goals

I recently applied for one of three free courses being run and delivered by WordPress. In this instance the course is designed to give your blog focus and teach you how to build and develop a brand, skills I feel will be useful both here and in the future. So what is the first step along this process? Step one is defining the goals of your blog; what you hope to accomplish and achieve.

Firstly I need to consider what this platform is all about. Basically it boils down to a place where I can express myself, my thoughts and feelings and generally just write about what I want to write about. But there other facets I would like to engage with. I would very much like to create a space that harbours and encourages discussion. Of course this would need to be a friendly, non-judgemental and non-bias place. I wouldn’t want to limit discussion or prevent people from putting their opinion across. But at the same time there is no reason to attack anyone for their opinion, not all of us are keyboard warriors, seeking to create conflict for no good reason, after all. For this to happen however, I’d need a much larger and active readership. It would also fall to me to provide enough interesting stimulus to get these debates rolling.

These desire can be broken down into quantifiable and tangible goals. Translating them however forces you to measure your own ideas of success and put yourself out there, so to speak. If for example you state your goal is to increase your readership by a given percentage by a given date, you very much make yourself accountable for that goals success or failure. It feels a tad daunting, but presents, at the same time, a fantastic learning opportunity. If you are met with failure you can ask yourself why? What could I have done to achieve that goal? What didn’t I do? If you are met with success there are still questions to be asked, like: how can I move forward and/or continue to grow? Now that I have achieved what I want, do I still want the same things? What more can I do?

The task states you should set three goals, so here it goes:

  1. Increase my readership by 20% by February.
  2. Increase commenting and participation by the same date.
  3. Publish/Post at least twice a week.
  4. (Bonus) If at all possible, post a Guest post once a month, or at least just one.

These goals will not only make me accountable to myself, but to those who may choose to read what I will come to write. I’m looking forward to seeing what else this course has to offer and to improving this little blog of mine.

The Meaning of Life

Amid a host of articles recently discussing plans to open large cloning facilities, something that sounds ,admittedly, terribly sci-fi. I have been compelled to answer one of life’s great quandaries, what is the meaning of life? After deciding to take this immense burden upon myself and after a short period of examination, I am happy to report that I have solved it. Yes, that’s right I have solved it. It seems rather simple actually, and in my humble opinion the meaning of life is to create life, to continue and to be. Not so much a poetic answer and I’m not about to back up what I say with a myriad of scientific facts or observations. But just hear me out.

A quick dive into any number of search engines will produce a seemingly endless list of websites that have given this much more thought than I have. It is in giving it a little less though that I have arrived at my epiphany. Take for example the first one to appear at the top of my returned results list. The aptly named: http://www.meaningsoflife.com/. This website as it name suggests deals exclusively with this question and draws readers through a winding tunnel of deeply considered philosophical points, quotes and arguments, but doesn’t fundamentally arrive at any coherent conclusion. This website is closely followed by Wikipedia’s explanation and another offering a menagerie of quotes focusing on the topic, although some seem slightly off topic:

“The best things in life make you sweaty.”

Edgar Allen Poe

But no real answer is reached. Arguably this is an incredibly flawed approach consulting the great basin of knowledge that is the internet, but so far so good. Now, here is where the cloning comes in. We are instinctively programmed to do a few things. These things can be broken down essentially into two camps, to survive and to reproduce. We are obsessed with continuing our own lives, breaking free from our mortal shackles in the pursuit of immortality. Making many people the world over extremely jealous of the Turritopsis Dohrnii, an immortal jellyfish. Throughout history there are legends surrounding the Holy Grail and the workings of Alchemists attempting to unlock immortality’s secrets. Cloning may just be the latest trend in seeking this goal, the creation of life, although in this case it is also the maintenance of life.

Every living being on the planet is set in a never ending pattern, a continuous cycle that inevitably leads to the reproduction, copying or splitting of oneself to create new life. There are even philosophical and religious structures to explain this unending repetition. Take for example Reincarnation, a very popular expression of immortality. All life on this planet works towards and is continually focused upon this one impending goal. Sure, I can understand now that you may be saying to yourself that you have no interest in having a child, not at least at this very moment in time. But the thought is there, is it not, lingering at the back of your mind? You may not even have a child in the near future, but there is a strong chance at some point you will have one, or seek out a means to obtain one. That is was draws me to the conclusion that our purpose, our meaning, if ever we are to have one is the creation of life. At least that is what I believe it all boils down to in the grand scheme of things.

I know that the flow of this post comes to a rather abrupt halt. Yet my answer doesn’t actually require a great deal more conceptualisation. That is what makes it so simple, and more often then not, the more simple the answer the more it can be and is understood by the ones delivering it and the ones it is delivered to. Admittedly this may not be, in actual fact, the final and complete answer to this epic mystery. At the very least its some quality food for thought!

 

A Less than Merry Christmas

This will be quite an auspicious post, or perhaps not, depending on your own disposition. As you may or may not now know, I am currently living in China, Shanghai to be more specific. As you may or may not know, Christmas isn’t really a holiday that is celebrated or observed out here. Strange enough as it is, that this will be my first Christmas away from home, but it’ll be in a country in which Christmas isn’t even a big deal!

There have been a few advantages to this lack of Christmas cheer however. As of yet, I haven’t suffered under the usual barrage of premature advertisements, decorations or Christmas songs. This reprieve  has been, for the most part, very welcome. Equally this year I’ll be missing out on the Christmas advert competition that annually rages between rival supermarkets. There are other advantages to being in China, the ‘Great Firewall’ has meant that I’ve not had to face the online bickering that always accompanies the months leading up to Christmas. You know the kind I’m on about, “It’s November, It’s not even close to Christmas yet!” and all the numerous and endless variances produced in a flurry without fail. Equally I haven’t been slapped in the face by the ever increasing snowball of Memes, either celebrating Christmas, denouncing it or attacking Christmas fanatics in a passively aggressive manner.

But putting these small pleasures aside, it seems many people, or at least those that I work with, imagine that this Christmas will be an entirely lacklustre affair. I myself, am pretty inclined to agree with them. The only thing providing any notion of Christmas is the plummeting daily temperature, something as I’m sure you can imagine is a bit of a mixed blessing. It also doesn’t help that, as Christmas in not a national holiday, which means we will be working on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Say what you might, but nothing says merry Christmas like presiding over a classroom or two of twenty screaming children that require your constant attention. It is likely my school will put on a Christmas event, although the exact details are unknown to me and will likely remain so until the day of, or if I’m lucky the day before. I will however be employing a slight countermeasure to this lack of cheer and festiveness by means of my Santa Claus onesie that I picked during my university years. Something small to look forward to adorning.

This year I will have to face the prospect of experiencing a very different Christmas. I won’t be sitting around the Christmas Tree joyfully exchanging gifts with my family. Before eating and drinking myself into a stupor, playing what has become the annual and sole game of Risk and generally continually eating. This year, I will, if all goes well, be spending Christmas with my Aunt and Uncle, eating what I hope will be a stupendous Christmas Dinner. But that is all yet to come. So in all, my Christmas won’t be as I’ve come to expect Christmas, a sea of red, aggressive marketing and overplayed Christmas songs. Instead it appears as though it will be a little more low key, not quite bah humbug, but definitely not Ho Ho Ho! I wonder who will be this year’s Christmas number one ……….

A Letter to Myself Five Years in the Future

I recently stumbled across this idea whilst reading from one of my subscriptions on WeChat. It caught my attention as something that might be fun to do. So rolling off of the top of my head, here we go!

 

Dear future me,

How’s it going? I can only imagine a lot has changed, or at least I hope it has, otherwise we’ve made a few poor judgements along the way. I’m very curious to see where we’ve landed, where we are living, what we are doing and who we are doing it with. Has there been love or loss? Triumphs or failures? All these questions you can answer now, its a pretty exciting thought. Five years is a long time, by then we’ll be thirty, a thought that sends a little shiver down my spine. No matter how hard I try, I can’t help but feel thirty is old. Of course in actuality, its not, but I’ve never really imagined us as being thirty! It seems almost alien.

Do we have a home? I’m pretty sure we’ll still be in China, I’m enjoying it here too much at the moment to warrant leaving. Although I can only imagine that by this time we will have explored a great deal more of it. Whilst we are on the topic of China, I truly hope we’ve pulled our socks up and mastered, or at least gotten close to mastering Mandarin, how else could we expect to survive otherwise? What’s our apartment like? Is it even an apartment that we live in? Are we alone, preferably, unless we are in one very serious relationship? Its all very much a great mystery at the moment. I’m a little jealous that you have all the answers. Although, at the same time I’m in no rush to get there.

Are we married? Marriage! What a strange idea that one is. I’ve never put much stock in it, but by the time we are thirty could that all have changed? Could we have met someone who changed that idea for us? What kind of person would it take to change that? That’s the truly fascinating conundrum. She’d have to be one hell of a woman to convince me to take that plunge. I’m beside myself with curiosity, what does she look like? But before I get to carried away, there is the very really possibility we won’t be in this position at all. Moving on!

Where are we working and who for? Have we been, at any point, struck with a life altering epiphany that has led us to say start our own business or travel the world volunteering perhaps?  Or did we just drag our heels? I hope not, I’d be awfully disappointed in us if that was the case.One thing I can almost say with a sense of almost complete certainty is that by now, we shouldn’t be teaching anymore. I do enjoy the job, but I don’t feel as though it will ever by my final career path, and being me, I’m sure will feel the same way. But again there is always that chance that we will never leave the profession, due to circumstance or maybe even a new found love for the job.

Of course everything that has been mentioned is pure speculation. But is intriguing none the well. This letter I’ve written you has been a little self centred. But we can’t go on talking about family and friends and everyone’s adventures otherwise will we have missed our own and I’ll wake up one day, a thirty year old man with a long list of stories that aren’t  my own. All I can say for now is good luck in the future, I hope we are doing well!

 

Yours Faithfully,

You.

 

Learning a New Language, and more Specifically Learning Mandarin

Collectively, I have a good few years of language learning under my belt. Not only did I naturally and instinctively learn my native language, much in the same way we all do. I also went through the British education system, meaning I studied both French and German for two years each respectively. How many words can I speak in either language? A small smattering at best. A handful of words that wouldn’t get my by in either country, shameful really, especially after so many years of such dedicated study …..

I recently began the long and winding road that is learning a new language, this time with a little more enthusiasm than I had once possessed in my school years. However this time learning a language will be slightly different. Now, as a language teacher, my views and perceptions, even my knowledge of language acquisition have grown and changed. Before, sitting in a classroom felt forced and unwanted, but I can see now what I wasted opportunity all those hours have become. Possessing any number of languages above and beyond your own is completely invaluable in all manners of your life; your personal life, employment, business and many more. Even more so as I have moved to the other side of the world, language has become ever more important in my life and in the not too distant future.

For me, as is the case for many others, obtaining a new language does not come very easily. This is for several reasons, some I believe I am not at fault for, whilst others are exactly the opposite in their nature. Firstly, in my experience, I don’t possess a head/mind for languages. Possibly an odd statement considering my current area of employment, but on the other hand teaching your own language is significantly less challenging than learning a new one. What I mean by this is that new words, for example, struggle to stick in my mind, their pronunciation and meaning are often lost to me much faster than I would like. The problem is only exacerbated when you consider how alien Mandarin appears to your tongue. Being a tonal language, again for example, the meaning of a word changes drastically depending on which of the four tones you use. Moreover Mandarin contains sounds that simply do not exist in English. This is what I find most difficult, it simply doesn’t stick. Secondly, there is almost always an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment when trying to speak, especially out loud to actual living people. Making mistakes is definitely a natural part of the learning process, but I really don’t enjoy making mistakes. Its these feelings I need to overcome in order to be more successful. Besides, what is the point of learning to speak a new language if you aren’t going to speak to anyone!

When you break any language down into its four main components: speaking, listening, reading and writing another great hurdle presents itself. Listening, hearing new words and questions from a native speaker, or anyone for that matter, in any manner of speed is without a doubt very difficult. You can repeat the word to yourself any number of times, but as soon as someone else mutters the word, all meaning seemingly disappears. It is certainly a challenge.

But all is not lost! There are simple remedies to these speed bumps. The predominant solution is so terribly obvious I can hear you screaming it now! Its practice. Practice, repetition and more practice, that’s all that is need, and where better to practice a language than its country of origin. Here in lies on of those problems that is self-inflicted. I don’t practice enough nor do I always practice well. Learning vocabulary by myself is an essential part of the process, but ideally I should be practicing more with Chinese nationals, the people that surround me day in and day out. I’m not completely useless in this regard, I do speak to my colleagues in broken Mandarin and they do help me along the way, but in the quest for new language I must do more!

I would like to add, as a footnote, whilst this little post may sound like I’m complaining a little too much, I’m not. I’m excited about the challenges ahead and identifying the problems I face in learning a new language is one of the best ways to over come them. To all those learning a new language, good luck out there and keep working hard.

Teaching – What I’ve Learnt so Far

It can’t be denied that teaching is a mixed bag, it can leave you exhausted and broken, or put you on a massive life high. During my brief tenure so far (the accumulated work of 6 months) I have experienced both extremes. I’ve been overjoyed by the work and progress of my students and left scrambling under the weight of my schedule (although, lucky I’ve not yet reached a point where I cannot handle it). So what has my experience taught me so far?

The Kids, my students, they come in all shapes and sizes, each one with a totally unique personality. They are the fundamental key to my profession, I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for them. I owe them a lot. But, like any good teacher, my focus is entirely outward facing. My job is simply to hasten the learning abilities of my students and advance their English as much as I possibly can. It’s important to me that I do a good job. Now there are people of the opinion that TEFL teachers mostly use their positions to focus on travel and other such experiences, as opposed to their actual role. In some cases, I’m sure that’s true, and in a lot of other cases I’m sure it’s not. Sweeping that all aside however, I know I feel I have to do the best job I can; as whilst I may only be a part of my students’ lives for a short time, the impact I will potentially have is much greater. Not to sounds big-headed or anything of the like, but if I can actively improve their English, then I am doing them a service.

Moving on from that minor tangent, I’ve found/ I’ve met students of all abilities, each with different strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to treat them all with the same level of patience and understanding in each area of their linguistic development. The confidence of a child is something that needs to be nurtured. If they feel humiliated, embarrassed or take any such knock, you could inadvertently shut them out of a lesson or more, if you’re not careful.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to teaching. This includes every single aspect of the profession. From lesson planning and structure, right the way down to discipline and classroom management. What might work for one individual or class could be entirely catastrophic if implemented with another. In fact, I have found the more I have taught, the broader and broader my lesson plans have actually gotten. It’s a relatively stark contrast. Throwback to when I first started and my plans were meticulous, accounting for almost every minute and describing how every and any action would be enacted. Now however, they largely consist of boxes carrying titles of the general activity I plan to do, like spelling or pronunciation practice, for example. Teaching is certainly something you grow into.

Patience is beyond a virtue when it comes to this profession. In my experience, although I’m sure this may vary from teacher to teacher, it seems you need endless volumes of the stuff, no matter the level you are teaching. Even your golden classes or favourite students can have their bad days and drive you round the bend, and yes, we have favourites, anyone who says otherwise is telling you a lie. Patience is a requirement to get through the day, to cope with the demands of your students and their parents.

Discipline is a balancing act, its like spinning a dozen plates whilst balancing on a tight rope suspended between two elephants’ trunks whilst they contend with balancing on a small circus ball (one each respectively). When it works it’s a marvel to behold, when it doesn’t, well the outcomes can be disastrous. I’ve seen kids throw their books and bags across the classroom because they can’t sit where they want or next to the person they constantly matter with. I’ve had kids cry, fight and god knows what else in my class. On the other hand I’ve had classes run like a well oiled machine, moving seamlessly from task to task, being both highly motivated and focused. I’d like to say its just the luck of the draw, and it is to an extent, but it also comes down to how well you can balance and juggle.

The solution and something else rather odd I’ve discovered, is how much you lean on what you learnt from your own teachers growing up. I’ve ended up adopting some of their methods and a favoured mentality I always admired: a fun and relaxed atmosphere, but strong and strict when needed. So far it’s guided me pretty well. But I can see some of you now, recoiling in horror at the thought of becoming anything like the teachers that used you haunt your days at school. But you’ll be surprised, when you think about it, at just how similar you are, in many ways, to the adults you grew up around.

Now this is a pretty brief run down, and I have a lot more to learn, discover and see. But after a long day of teaching, my brain is finally beginning to fail me, so I’ll leave it at this. Good luck out there!

Adapting to a new land.

I have now been in China near six months, and I can begin to say it’s starting to feel more like home, although I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this city, this country, its culture and its language. Uprooting yourself, travelling half-way across the world and starting a new life, no matter the length of time you stay, or not. It’s no easy feat, it requires a lot of courage, taking that leap into the unknown. No matter how much research you may do on the internet, nothing can truly prepare you for what lies ahead. It requires a certain level of belief, or at least that has come to be my understanding, in yourself and what you are capable of. To some its about getting lost, and for others its about something else entirely.

In my time here, I’ve sound a few simple steps, if you like, that have helped me adapt to my new surroundings, that have begun to mould something of a home for me here. A few things that have carried me forwards, kept me sane and avoided the inevitable perils of certain things, much like homesickness. This isn’t a guide so much as what I’ve found to be true.

Homesickness:

In this regard I have always found myself rather fortunate. I don’t feel its something that has ever really hit me, other than a few occasions. But in moving to China I was fortunate enough to be moving from family to family, in that my uncle has lived here for a great many years, and my aunt even longer still. Having family with you is a great boon in the battle with homesickness, that is without a doubt. But, I imagine, in a lot of cases, people aren’t as fortunate as I have been in this respect. The best way I have found is a simple on. In this day and age communication is remarkably simple. There are dozens of ways to stay in touch with those closest to you back home. Friends and family are all within easy reach. What’s more, you can see them as often as you’d like. Through Skype, WeChat, WhatsApp and FaceTime, to name but a few. Otherwise it’s plain old written communication. It’s only in moments in which you are left to your own thoughts, your own mind that feelings like homesickness creep in. You don’t feel homesick whilst you are at work, when you are experiencing new foods, climbing or hiking through a mountain or absorbing new sights. Keep in touch with those you care about and keep active, you’ll avoid this temporary affliction.

Films and Books

Something I’ve never witnessed in any form of written advice or reflection, although I feel it can’t be something unique to me, is the potency of films and/or books in aiding this transition. Watching films, both new and old can be the perfect distraction. In the case of older films, films I grew up with, or films that just so happen to be favourites of mine, help to settle me. They help to calm and really add that homely feeling. Much like listening to a song you had forgotten about can revive old memories and feelings you once forgot you had. An old film can transport that feeling of belonging, that feeling of being at home from your old abode to your new one. Its a similar case with books, a favourite book is much like a comfort blanket or an escape to another world, where you can leave any troubles or feelings behind for a time. Aside from the comfort they bring, books and films are perfect tools for making new and lasting friendships. Jurassic World, when it hit the silver screen out here pulled a group of people together I now happily call friends. People I have been travelling with I may never have met otherwise!

Routine and Habits

This isn’t to say you should have every moment planned, or any moment planned at that. But habits and routines are a sure sign of being settled. The most basic, if you can call it that, would be work. Soon, after travelling to and from work becomes a pattern, you’ll slowly begin to feel more and more at home. But I can’t dwell here for too long, routine and patterns are, for the most part, something I’ve often struggled with. But I have enjoyed them when I have had them, and work have been a very stable influence.

Travel

This may seem odd if you’re intention is to plant some roots, logically being in one place would be pretty key in establishing yourself. But leaving where you are only to return, perhaps frequently, perhaps a little less, can really begin to alter and shape the way you see and perceive where you live. To leave only to return really begins to cultivate a sense of belonging and a sense of being at home. You begin to grasp at the feeling that this is where you live, this is your home. When moving abroad all you really long for is a home, a sense of it, maybe even just a whisper of it, but that longing is always there. This may even be one of the best ways to bring about that feeling. I know that in my few travels so far, Shanghai has felt a little more like home every time I’ve returned, every time the wheels of the plane have kissed the tarmac, every time a train has come quietly to a stand still, Every time I have returned to Shanghai every time I have returned home.

This is what I have found so far in my time here, perhaps you’ll find some of it of use, maybe you won’t. Either way, I wish you all the best.