Monday, December 24, 2007

Chinese Chess

Chinese Chess or xiang (4th tone) qi (2nd tone) is a popular game, often played by old men in the back streets of cities, towns and villages throughout mainland China. These players are often surrounded by bystanders, as absorbed as the players themselves. Their points are chalked up and I've seen cases where they peck their point sheet to their ear lobes with wooden cloth pegs! I tried to take a photo of some players once but they forbade it. I used to feel sorry for these old folks. It seems as if xiang qi occupied their lives to the exclusion of all else. That was before I understood how mentally challenging and stimulating the game was and how it can even help ward off dementia.

The origin of the game is debatable. Some scholars claim it originates from India, others say it began in Persia. But in China, records show that the game was played as early as the fourth century. It was believed to have been created by one of the generals in the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Like western chess, the equivalent of the king, is the general or jiang (4th tone) He is assisted by the mandarins or shi (4th tone) Other pieces on the board are the elephant, the cannon, the soldiers and the chariot, each character in red or black depending on the player.

Today, like online martial arts, online Chinese chess is also very popular among young people.

The Brain and Dementia

Have you wondered why some old folks remain mentally alert while their peers have short attention spans, repeat themselves, suffer forgetfulness - the usual signs of old age and dementia?

Studies confirm what many of us already know- to retain our mental sharpness, we need to be mentally stimulated. It works on the same principle as physical exercise. To keep fit, we need to run or walk. We carry weights to strengthen our muscles. Our brain, too, functions in a similar fashion. The more we exercise the brain, in this case, through mental activity, the sharper it becomes.

Old people should not give up mental exertion. Deng Xiao Ping, the father of China’s opening and modernization lived until his late eighties or early nineties. Like many old people in China, he spent his time playing Chinese chess, when he was not working on national matters. The game requires full concentration and excellent memory. You need to think ahead of your opponent, make the right strategies for the wrong move could spell disaster.

If you're not into mental games, get involved in things just to be occupied. Participate in church activities, spend time with little ones, get involved in ballroom dancing, learn things that interest you or travel - anything you have a passion for. Remember, there's nothing more pathetic than a fuddled, old mind.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Car thefts

I was chatting with my sister in law while waiting for the traffic lights to turn green when I heard a loud bang. I almost jumped out of my seat! A taxi had hit my bumper! I came out to inspect the car but didn't see the dent that was caused and so I let him off.

My sister in law then told me that she didn't leave the car because my engine was on and anyone could have made off with the car. The presence of passengers in the car would not deter such people.

Her warning was confirmed today when I heard a similar case where a man got out of to inspect his brand new car which had just been hit. While he was doing that, another car swerved in, and a man jumped out and drove off with his car and the man's wife was in the car! Fortunately for her, she had the presence of mind to jump out. When the car was finally recovered, the authorities found a long knife in it.

There are also cases of cars being hijacked right at one's doorstep as the driver is shutting the house gate. And ladies, don’t think for a moment, that just because of centralized locking you can have your handbag sitting on the front passenger seat. There have been cases of motorcyclists, breaking window glasses when the traffic lights are red and heading off with the driver’s handbag while all she can do is stare in shock. Many a window screen have been broken because the remote control for paying toll was sitting prettily on the dashboard. Ah, the pain to the heart and the pocket when that happens.

So be alert, drivers! Remember never to leave your car, unattended with the engine on. Anything can happen in a split second. And don't invite covetousness, either.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Masters and Ph. D Writers for Hire

The New Straits Times has an interesting article today on how “hundreds of masters and PhD students are getting "professional thesis writers" to pen their theses. This seems to be a growing trend in many countries. Not only is the practice unethical but prone to potential danger. Imagine being on the operating table of a surgeon who “bought” his degree in this manner or hiring a lawyer with poor legal foundation or having a professor who is only a lesson ahead of his students. Unfortunately, the culprits get away with it.

A doctor who buys his degree can play safe by working as a medical practitioner who dispenses medicine for coughs and aches and pains. Likewise, the lawyer who gets someone to write his theses can work safely just rubber stamping standardized sales and purchase agreements. The professor with poor research skills would be like the blind leading the blind.

The examination authorities should come down hard on such practices. The busyness of the candidate should be no excuse. The university's reputation is at stake here and especially since we want to make our country a regional educational hub.
Make sure all theses pass Copycat/copy scape tests. Apart from the thesis, marks should be evenly distributed on ongoing course work, class participation and not just the thesis.

Pregnancy and the College Girl

Jamie Lynn Spears (sister of Britney Spears) who plays the popular, teenage virgin on “Zoey 101” is pregnant. The news of her pregnancy sparked off a controversy about sex, contraceptives and teen pregnancy. Parents worry that the news would send the wrong message that it is cool to be sixteen and pregnant as American teens regard her TV character as their role model.

In mainland China, if a female student is pregnant, she would be expelled from school or college. This spells total devastation for her future. For this reason, both teachers and doctors are often empathetic and apparently, it is the unwritten, standard procedure to help such girls undergo abortion to save their future. Rare is the case of one who would dare upset society's propriety and one's own prospects by giving birth in such circumstances.

I once conducted a debate on the moral issue of abortion and the majority of the forty odd students in the senior class concluded that the mother's future should come before the foetus. In other words, pragmatism should rule the day.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Riding the Bicycle in Beijing

Crossing the road in Beijing can be a real hazard. The roads can be three or four lanes wide both ways. Luckily, I overcame the phobia when a Chinese professor showed my Australian friend and I how, when he accompanied us on a trip to a museum. We had to cross one of those wide, busy roads and he grabbed us by our arms and guided us across, lane by lane. That was such an effective lesson in road crossing, China style. Not that there are no pedestrian crossing or overhead bridges. The trouble is those could be a mile off, from where you are. Not to mention, the tedious task of walking up those long bridges for those with tired feet.

Taking public buses was another challenging experience. When you take the public bus in Beijing, you need to know which station you’re disembarking because if you miss it.... boy or boy! Are you headed for a long, long walk! Sometimes - the next station could be a kilometer away.

Everything in Beijing is on a super-large scale even the campus. So a bicycle comes in handy when you do errands. I had learned to ride a bicycle when I was a kid but had not ridden for several decades. I soon learned the truth of the statement that once you’ve learned to swim or ride, you never forget it.
I relearned how to handle the bicycle on my good friend’s bike in Tienjin and after that I was riding all over the neighborhood and its surroundings and I learned how to ride on icy roads without falling.

Bicycling is another very good form of exercise but unfortunately, our roads do not make allowance for bicycle lanes.

Walking and dementia

Dementia in old age is terrible. Not only do you forget where you leave your house keys, your car keys or where you parked your car. Imagine the terror experienced when you can't find your car in one those monstrous malls with multiple levels of parking and exits. In more severe cases, you may forget about your bank savings or fail to recognize a relative or friend.

The latest scientific findings (New York Times, 20th) show that walking reduces the risk of dementia or memory loss. We all know that brisk walking is good for blood circulation and cardiovascular function but that walking can help boost memory is so exciting! And so simple! So what are you waiting for? Invest in a good pair of canvas shoes, look for a park and the most suitable time and begin your daily walk for better health!

The Power of Words

The New York Times (December 20th)has an article on how to encourage the family to eat vegetables. The idea is to use the power of words to describe the greens. Mention "juicy" or "succulent," and immediately one's mouth begins watering. The findings was based on research conducted at a cafeteria. The same food was given different different descriptions and the outcome? The more interesting the description, the higher the ratings were given.

This reminds me of the names given to dishes in some Chinese restaurants. Sometimes the descriptions do not give one a clue of what the dish is. You may order a dish like Weeping Willow only to have a plate of bamboo strings.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Pavilion

Pix C.K. Tang, Pavilion
Last Saturday, I set out for Pavilion, one of the latest shopping malls, housing several upmarket stables in clothing and jewellery. It's just opposite Lot 10 and is built on the former Bukit Bintang Girl's School. I was told the school was relocated to Cheras. BBGS was one of the premier schools in the country but had to give way to "the Golden Triangle and development." Money talks, eh!

I had been offered a complimentary pass to the cinema or so I thought. Sad to say, I never got to see any movie because it turned out that the pass was meant for a show at the Pavilion, Genting Highlands. What a pity! I would have loved to see The Warlords starring, Andy Lau, Jet Li and the handsome Japanese actor.

My sister in law and myself went up to the Food Court on the fourth level where she had Ipoh noodles. I ordered a Korean pancake. Korean food in China beats those here anytime, anywhere. In Guangzhou, the Korean pancake is made wholly from potato. It is crisp and absolutely divine. Here, I give a five out of ten points.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mao Tse Tung (Part 2)

In Beijing, some taxi drivers have pendants of Mao Tse Tung hanging from the ledge of the driver's mirror. They actually regard them as holy amulets to protect them from accidents and danger.

The same too applies to illiterate peasants who hawk under the overhead bridges. Talk about Mao Tse Tung and automatically, they put their hands together in a prayer gesture. Although he's dead for so many decades and his body lies embalmed in one of the musuems in the Tiananmen Square, he continues to hold power and sway among the illiterate.

On practically every campus, you would see a life sized stature of Mao. In those days, the college would take us out on weekend tours and when we returned after a long journey, usually by the late evening, the first things our eyes would figure out for in the dim light would be "Chairman Mao." It meant "we have arrived 'home' safely!"


Nicole, may be the new kid on the block, but she barks louder than the neighbourhood dogs which can be an embarrassment. I tie her up in the living room when I go out. But yesterday, when I returned, the whole hall was in mayhem! She had managed to cut lose, trampled upon the sofa, bringing several down the floor, wet on one and pooped again. The curtains were drawn. Boy ! I gave such such a hard spanking that even my hands hurt. I think by now, she's learnt her lesson.

The neighbor commented that her bark may be worse than her bite.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

How to toilet train a puppy

During the car ride home of twenty kilometers or so, Nicole sat on the front passenger seat, quiet and uneasy, sensing that she was in unfamiliar territory. I stroked her back and crooned to calm her down. I was afraid she would wet the car seat which would mean plenty of headache for me. Lucky thing, she didn’t. I stopped at a convenient place and placed newspapers beneath the rug, just in case. When I lifted her from the seat, I could tell she was quite frightened since I had to practically prise her off the seat. I placed her on my lap. She began looking out of the window at the passing scenery before lying down and placing her jaw on the crook of my inner elbow. I guess she needed the assurance of human contact.

The first thing she did when she arrived at her new home was to wet the hall and walk all over her urine. Yuks! I cleaned up the spot, introduced her to the washroom, then told her in no uncertain terms to do her business there. She didn’t get it. For the next few days, she began wetting in different areas of the house. Each time she did it, I made a ruckus, warned her and took her to the toilet bowl again to tell her to do her business there. She’s scared of the toilet and of falling in. Now she doesn’t wet or poop in the open but does it in hidden corners, which is even worse. Phew, for the past few days, I’ve been like a maid cleaning up after her. ” Nicole, Nicole, when will you get it?”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Cindy, the dog lover

Picture shows Cindy with her niece, Sook Yi, the family dog, Sally and Nicole

Apart from taking care of hubby and two growing boys, Cindy picks up stray dogs, nurtures them and finds foster homes for them. According to Cindy, both Sally and Nicole are sisters whose mother is the church dog. The latter has given birth to several litters. As always the female puppies get abandoned whilst the males have no problem getting adopted. It looks as if there is no end to sex discrimination as long as humans are involved.

Though Sally and Nicole are sisters, they are as different as day is to night. Sally is smoky brown from top to toe except for two white spots above the eyes and around the mouth. Even her eyes are brown. They blend so much into her face, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish the difference in the dark. Nicole, on the other hand, is snowy white and the tips of her ears meet each time you call her.

Apart from color, they are also different in character. Sally is more spirited and endearing. She jumps all over you, wagging her tail, licking you, begging to be patted. Nicole, on the other hand, tends to be timid and reserved. Her favorite place is under the sofa. I had a hard time choosing between the two. I was inclined towards Sally because of her high spiritedness but in the end, I chose Nicole because she looks like a mixed breed.

Cindy was sad to part with her.
“Say bye bye to mommy," she told Nicole as she bent down to kiss her. You’ve got a new mommy now,” she added.

Sally is available for adoption and after that Cindy will go look for other strays to take care of.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mao Tse Tung and queing up for hot water

I was reading an online book on Chairman Mao of mainland China. The writer said that Mao, by virtue of his learning was looked up to in a peasant army where illiteracy was common. (that was before he rose to power) As he was regarded as a scholar, Mao felt it was beneath him to queue up for his daily supply of water.

That account reminded me of my student days in Beijing. In those days, we had to line up, together with the local workers to get our supply of hot water. I think the higher staff have hot water faucets at home. At that point of time, I used to think pensively how I took the conveniences of life at home so much for granted. And here I was freezing in the cold winter waiting for a flask of hot water that would last me just one day. It wasn't funny at that point of time, especially when the queue could run a mile long but looking back it was quite an unusual experience. You fill your hot water bottle at the front where there is a long sink with several faucets. You need to watch out how you turn off the tap and you can't fill the flask to the full, or you might get burnt by the hot boiling water. The water depot is opened for a few hours in the morning and again in the evening. Very inconvenient. You might ask why not just buy mineral water or use the water off the tap in the dorm. Mineral water can hurt the pocket. As for the water in the dorm, it is undrinkable and is thick with a kind of carbon found in old pipes.
Several months after that, some young punks spoke up and demanded that foreign student quarters be supplied with hot water pipes and would you believe it? The college administration bowed in to student demands. Oh, the power of the greenback!

Losing face

In mainland China, many students are afraid to speak English for fear of making grammar mistakes in which case they would 'lose face' or have 'no face' or 'wouldn't know where to put their face.' Some foreigners get stumped by these idiomatic expressions but they should not underscore the concept. Face value is something that is strongly embedded in the tradition and the culture of the people. To lose face or have no face happens in a situation when one's ego is punctured either by a third party or by oneself as in the case of making a fool of oneself by using the wrong grammar. So rather than making grammar mistakes and 'having to lose face' it's better not to speak English. I always encourage my students by telling them "I don't expect you not to make mistakes."

Language is active and has to be practised to perfection which infers mistakes will be made. So have a "thick face" which means "have a thin ego" and all will be fine!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Perfect Cup of English Tea

A mug of tea (Pix)
I watched Martha Stewart a few days ago (I’m watching the re-runs of 2006) and a classy British actress promptly announced, "let me show Americans how to make proper tea." Then she forged ahead, (unaware of the tension aroused by her statement) threw two tea bags into a "china pot" and then poured "hot boiling water" into the pot. The pot has to be covered with mittens, (only in winter, I suppose) and "its milk in the cup first, always, before the tea." I wonder what other differences there are between the two cousins, besides language and tea?

By the way, left-over tea can be frozen in ice trays just as with any drink- coffee, orange or syrup.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bone Scan

Femur Bone Density (Pix 1) Spinal Bone Density (Pix 2)
Today, I went for a bone scan at the Nuclear Medicine Unit. It was a six month’s wait to get the scan. I was so afraid that I would forget about the appointment that I had it noted down in my cell phone as a reminder and had my alarm set two hours before the appointment. Getting there was not much of a problem but finding a parking bay was, especially since I had a car tailing me so closely all the way round the spiral route leading up several parking levels. I missed two empty spots since I couldn't backtrack with him breathing down on me.

One has to be off vitamins and calcium for at least three days before the scan. I went even further by not taking them a week before. You aren’t required to fast but you’re advised to come wearing clothes without zips or buttons. The instruction on the appointment letter was to wear T-shirt and track bottoms. The scan was to check for signs of osteoporosis due to a recurring weak knee cap and pain in the lumbar region.

You lie down on the bed with both your knees over a box and the overhead scan which uses a large camera travels over your spine. The radiographers watch the scan in the same room from the computer. The second scan x-rays your femur bone. The results are given to you almost immediately.

I was told that my calcium level was in good shape. If that’s the case, I wonder what’s the cause of my bone aches. Now I have to wait until February, next year to see the Medical side, a wait of eight months all together. And it all began with a case of severe ache! Wake up, University Hospital and revamp your system! There could be patients who have died waiting for an appointment!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

American English versus British English

If you compare English television broadcast in Beijing and Guangzhou, you will notice that up north, local newscasters and anchormen use American English, whereas in Guangzhou, British English is used. The obvious reason for the latter is its close proximity to Hong Kong. This is not confined to the square box only, but to the classroom as well. Having had the experience of teaching both in Beijing and Guangzhou, I had to adapt to the local accent of both environments.

These days I'm beginning to fall in love with the British accent. From the right speakers, it comes forth so classy - very pleasant to the ear. It's just like Pudonghua or Mandarin. When I listen to someone speak Beijinghua, I just wish I could speak like that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

English Corner

English corners are a phenomena found on campuses throughout Chinese universities in mainland China. They are often initiated by students from English faculties. Why, one may ask would English major students need the English Corner? Don’t they have enough of English in class? Yes, but in class, very often they are passive listeners. After class, most students revert to speaking in the mother tongue. Trying to speak English outside of class may not go down well among peers unless they are convinced of the advantages of being able to communicate the language spontaneously.

Oral English lessons account for the most two hours per week or less and students naturally want to have a chance to practice the language in a real environment and the English Corner seems to be the best place. Apart from that, the forum acts as a good place to meet up with students from other faculties.

Some of these clubs are quite well run. Foreign teachers are invited to share about their lives and experiences and to answer questions from the audience. Some times they want the foreign guests to sing as well –anything in English, would be welcome.