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Teaching for DadaABC

“Penguins wabble” my student says. I’ll call him Steve. Steve saw my short 30-second intro video and chose me as his teacher. He is one of many of my students at DadaABC, an online one-on-one English teaching company that caters to kids in China (Apply here).

“No Steve, peguins don’t wabble. They waddle. D-d-d.” There’s a picture of baby penguins.


“Nope! W-a-d-d-l-e.” I say it as slowly and clearly as I can, moving my face up to the camera so he can clearly see how my mouth is making the sounds.

“Wabble.” As with the word apple, the “l” sound comes out more like “o”.

“Alright, let’s move on.” This particular set of slides kept repeating the same vocabulary over and over again. “You know these. What are they?”

“They are ducklings!” Correct. With all the animals that have specific names for the young offspring, I don’t know why penguins were left out, they just get stuck with being called ‘baby penguins.’

“Yes! And what can ducklings do?”

“They can run!” Steve says. He is always happy. He is six, and his bookshelf background says a lot more about the character of his home than my four colorful posters and white wall say about mine.

“Yes!” I give him a yellow star. This the default reward system for the kids, though teachers are encouraged to come up with their own. They can get a maximum of five stars per class, and after accumulating enough stars they can earn rewards, i.e. toys (there’s also a reward-point system for teachers, but that subject could fill a book and goes beyond the scope of this story).

“Alllriiiight, what are these?” I say, moving to the next animal.

“They arrrrrrrre…..kolas!” Not bad.

“Almost, listen and say: Ko-a-las.”

“Koalas.” I do the usual TPR of putting my finger to my ear (well, my headset) to indicate ‘listen’, and then moving my hand away from my mouth for ‘say.’

“What can koalas do?”

“They can climb!” Right again. We had gone over all these animals previously, but he picked them up quickly.

I use my red ‘pen’ to circle the tree the koalas are climbing. I prefer switching between red and black, but sometimes I go with yellow if there’s a dark background.

“Yes! And what do they climb?” This question is trickier for him.

“They…..climb….a……..” I keep circling the tree and then clicking the Erase All button. It’s a habit.

“It’s a tree. It’s….a….tree.”

“Tree!!” he says.

Zebras can run. Tigers can walk. Kangaroos can jump. Sea turtles can crawl.

At some point I hear something crash in the background. Steve turns his head. I hear his mom tell him:

“上课!” Shang Ke (literally “on lesson”, in this context, “pay attention”).

Sometimes Steve shows me some of his toys. A couple of weeks ago he proudly showed me a toy of his that looked like an indiscriminately assembled clump of multicolored Legos (“This is my dog!” he had said).

But usually he just smiles and goes along with the lesson. Most six year-olds aren’t so easily entertained by pictures of animals.

We get to the slide with the polar bears. Polar bears can hug.

“Teacher, can you hug?” he asks. I have a pillow behind me. I grab it and hug it. He thinks it’s hilarious. I keep doing the lesson pretending I don’t have a giant pillow in my way.

“I can hug my mom” he says.

Alright, so not every Chinese student is exactly like Steve. There are challenges in any job. Some kids want to speak only in Chinese. Some need more encouragement than others. Some need more games and laughter to get them engaged. Some are just shy and don’t want to speak.

This kind of challenge and unpredictability underpins what makes this job much more enjoyable than most others. A few years ago I came across a three-minute clip of an Alan Watts’ talk in which he begins by repeating a question he poses to his students: “What would you do if money were no object?” The clip is quite good, but there’s a lot more to the speech. He later points out that as much as each of us chases after power, we don’t really want to play God. When we really want is to be surprised — pleasantly surprised.

Kangaroos can jump. Birds can fly. People can ___________

Working for Dada has provided a nice mix between being able to see my regular students on a regular basis, while also adding in other students I’ll likely only meet once. I’ve taught three year olds, sixteen year olds, and every age in between. It can be tiring, but it’s rarely boring.

Not bad for twenty-plus US dollars an hour.

If you’re interesting in teaching Chinese kids English from home part-time, wherever you are in the world, and you think you’d make a good teacher, apply now!

Winter Hike 2017

Tripyramid Trail on December 22, 2017. We bagged two peaks:


I must have taken about a hundred and fifty photos, but less is more. Other than the stuff we brought ourselves and the occasional revealed bit of pine, there was little color. Other than footsteps, voices and some running water near the base, there was no sound. We didn’t run into anyone else foolish enough to be hiking in late December while it was snowing.

Someone said to me in Sweden several weeks ago: The weather here is trying to kill you for five months out of the year. Up in the Great North of Lincoln New Hampshire, activity abounds while snow covers the ground and obscures the way.


When I was nineteen, a counselor I saw in a neighboring city helped me practice techniques for memorizing information. I was told a series of directions, and was told that I would be tested on how well I could remember everything. I immediately tried to think of how I would do that. There were only around five or six instructions, so what I did was quickly invent a bizarre mental image for the transition between each direction. When I was able to reproduce all the instructions, the counselor could tell that I had already grasped the purpose of the exercise; mental associations help with memory (and thus test scores and in theory work and career success).


Having split up my year into so many varied fragments, the associations become much simpler. The longer one spends somewhere of course, the more the mind gets accustomed to the environment the way it does to a person. We form relationships with the people, places and things. I like to spend just enough time somewhere for the walls, chairs, views and sounds to become familiar, only to move on to return later.


Each of my drawings has a memory associated with it. Maybe it doesn’t matter what it is for the drawing itself.


Not long ago, an English guy mentioned to me that the reason he smokes is because he likes to do things with his hands while he stands, walks or talks. I figure I’m the same way but with a pen (and maybe you can tell, part of me wants to be writing when I’m drawing, and drawing when I’m writing).


It’s easier to start things than to finish them. What I might be trying to do here is express a will-towards-architecture we could say, without having the stamina to go through with actually completing a building, and seeing it come to fruition. I just want to suggest the structure, then the movements: nexuses of gravity pull in all fragments of matter as they swim in, splinter out and return, forever. All description and logic is just this movement, in infinitely many ways.


People, cities, the insides of rooms, landscapes have appeared and gone like clouds. There are whole worlds of people in a city you’ve never heard of who will never remember you.

“Don’t burn yourself out” someone told me a few weeks ago. Here I am wondering how I am going to adjust to staying the same place for more than a week.


People often say they ‘don’t get’ modern art. Neither do I. But what often gets called ugly or simple or childish doesn’t mean the creator is that way; he’s making sense of specific moments and sharing them to the world outside. I see enough cities and I start to just see this:


“I am working a good deal and quickly these days…By doing this, I seek to find an expression for the desperately swift passing away of things in modern life.” –Van Gogh

ChuXiong Old Town and Bar

We visited a bar earlier in the day and took group photos. There weren’t any customers. I hate walking in groups like this when I don’t know the destination, so I have a tendency to wander away from the herd.

This was the evening after we walked through the forest, admired the scenery, took photos, and remarked on the symbolic significance of mushrooms growing out of the dead wood.

This city of one million felt at times like a ghost town. These ‘small’ Chinese cities have a way of feeling uncrowded, even as they are full of hundreds of millions. I got this same impression in Beijing’s Old Town and parts of JianShui. The Burkean ideal of public safety, prosperity, order, and peace is tangible in this place.

Purple light glowed over the small group as we listened to one another take turns and perform playing the guitar and singing. I even took a shot at it myself, though I mostly succeeded in making a fool of myself. I recognized one or two of the Chinese songs. I sat and talked a while with some of the group before going home, feeling the Chinese phrases flowing more smoothly as I kept talking.


I had a couple of hours to explore the Old Town on my own. I wasn’t the only one walking around with a camera. What is there left to say about the architecture of Chinese Old Town? I envy their unity of style, and look forward to the day when Western cities wake up from their brutalist, box-shaped architectural ways.


I checked my watch. I wanted to see as much as I could before I had to be back for tea, and to catch the train to our next destination.

Valencia & Madrid

More from Spain, in July of this year. Walking in this park in Valencia, there was a concert playing nearby. I wish I remembered the name of the band playing, because the shoegaze-type music drew me closer and I wanted to keep listening. I got a glimpse between the trees at the band, and saw people (including families) enter the stadium. A friend and I found an area where a tightrope connected two trees, and a smiling American hippy-like character with blue-painted toes came over and gave me a quick lesson on balancing. He was also teaching some people nearby how to juggle.


The sun set, and we walked through the old city, with its towers, statues, fountains and cathedrals.


On my last day in Madrid I went for a run in the park shown here. This structure, the Temple of Debod, is an ancient Egyptian structure built in the 2nd century BC. It was disassembled and rebuilt in Madrid, and opened to the public in 1972.


Me, after my run, as the sun begins to set.

7 Things You’ll Experience in China

When travelling or living in China, there are a whole bunch of experiences a newcomer is going to have to get used to. Like anywhere new, there are adjustments you have to make, as well as pleasant surprises. There are also brief moments when you are happy to experience that moment, and wouldn’t be anywhere else for the world.

Elderly people talk and play games while music plays in the background

China is experiencing a key moment right now, in which much of the country is developed, with a lot left still to go. Learning about Chinese language, culture and history is a worthwhile endeavor no matter what, and China is also becoming the world’s biggest market. Many believe that China will be the world’s biggest economic powerhouse in as little as ten years. Getting accustomed to China and Chinese culture could be very useful for a young person today.

Here are some things you will experience if you’re in China:

  1. People Will Be Curious About You.

Chinese people will ask you where you’re from, and what you’re doing there. This virtually never intended negatively, they’re simply interested in you. Someone who has gotten themselves to China is probably interesting in some way; are you a traveler? a teacher? Are you learning a new skill? If you speak some Chinese, how and why did you learn it? Do you like China? How about Chinese food?

2. Some People Will Stare at You

If you’re not ethnically Chinese, walking down the street of a small town (of about three-hundred thousand — that’s a ‘small town’ in China) I was such a novely that a man walking opposite to me stopped and stared at me. I kept walking but looked back at him, rather amused at how transfixed he was. Many people of course don’t look at you, and some might not even notice you. When people stare at you, they’re not being rude or intending to intimidate. Many don’t usually see any non-Chinese around, so their picture of foreigners comes from depictions in media; movies,

3. The Driving

Riding in a car in China, especially on the highway, can be an unnerving experience. I once was sitting in the back seat of an SUV while on the highway, when the driver decided to turn around because we had missed our exit. He backed up, dodging coming traffic which was fortunately scarce, and then drove up onto the dirt road where we meant to go. It was at this moment I decided to check the statistics on car accidents by country. China’s vehicle-fatality rate is almost nineteen per hundred thousand. This is about midway between many European countries, whose fatalities are in the low single digits, and parts of Africa where they’re in the twenties and even thirties. When you’re walking across the street in a small city like I did most of the time, you have to learn to simply walk into oncoming traffic. The good thing is that cars are usually going slowly enough that this is not too dangerous.

Vehicles scramble to avoid one another while driving on a main road

4. You Will Drink Tea

“All tea comes from China” a friend once told me. Tea is ingrained in the culture, and several times when I was walking around town, I was invited into ceramics shops and offered tea. What I had to get used to was how often people have tea after dinner, even shortly before going to bed (which in my mind rather defeats the purpose). This is a key element of Chinese culture that should not be missed. You’ll try different kinds, and perhaps witness a tea ceremony, which is meant to create a kind of serene and thoughtful atmosphere. Given that smell is strongly associated with memory, someday you might try that flavor of tea and be immediately brought back to the times you spent around the table, feeling yourself be energized by the authentic tea leaves of China.

Items needed for a tea ceremony

5. …and BaiJiu

BaiJiu (literally “white alcohol”) is what Chinese typically drink when at a restaurant, in addition to tea of course. It’s common for people to invite one another to “He Yi Kou” (take a sip) of BaiJiu at various times throughout the dinner as a way of being social. There are different types, some made with corn, others with grapes, and so on, with varying degrees of alcohol. For those who have never had it, it is not terribly dissimilar to vodka. Not everyone will drink it of course, preferring to clink their cups of tea instead of BaiJiu.

Eating and drinking at a peaceful spot in ChuXiong’s Old Town

6. The Culture of Politeness

You will likely both appreciate and suffer from the major difference in manners between East and West. On the positive side, people are generally quite nice to one another, and will probably treat you with a respect you’re unused to in the West. When the people around you are kind, this rubs off on you and makes your soul feel much lighter. However inevitably there will be times when people are polite to your face, but complain about you behind your back. This can be for all sorts of reasons (just like at home), but a major one can be a failure to reciprocate. If someone offers you a gift or to do something for you, the onus is usually on you to do something in return. Just because someone doesn’t display their desire to get something in return for his kindness doesn’t mean he doesn’t expect it. This requires being alert, and making sure to give back to those who have helped you. You also need to remember that in most cases, it is rude to refuse a gift when it is offered. You will probably be cut some slack as a foreigner, but it depends.

7. Spicy Food

Sadly, I can’t really handle spicy food too well. This is an unfortunate reality that I just have to grapple with. This means that when selecting food in China, I have to be quite careful not to choose anything terribly spicy, which is not always easy. There is plenty of great authentic Chinese food you will get to try if you go, spicy and non-spicy. Even if you like spicy food, do yourself a favor and avoid the tiny red peppers at all costs. You’ll thank me.

There is plenty more to life in China, so these are just some things you’ll definitely experience. As to more optional things, I’ll write more on that soon. My observations are taken from my experience in the South, so bear that in mind. If you want clean air and nice weather, I would say the South is the place to be. If you’re not going there for work, it’s likely you’ll need a Chinese citizen to write an invitation for you in order to get a visa. This is an annoying obstacle for many people, but for those who really want to go to the Middle Kingdom, it is possible.

Old Town in ChuXiong

[This article is also on medium.com]