Thursday, March 29, 2012


Notice posted recently in my Beijing apartment compound:

"Re: Holiday period security

New Year's Day period, strengthens the safe guard work, asks you to come in and go out the building on own initiative to carry access card. Regarding the visit visitor, like is unable to determine the concrete room number, the great hall security temporarily does not give the gate and informs the property department to carry on the inquiry, the relation.

Holiday period like you egress, please close, the windows and doors, closes the electric circuit, the closure water supply pipe valve, and informs the property department urgent telephone.

We apologize for any inconvenience that might be caused.

- The Management."

Thank God they cleared that up.

On that note, I will indeed be closing my electric circuit and water supply pipe valve next week while I take some Easter Holidays. I should be back on April 9. As we say in China at Easter - May you find many many eggs, and may they not be a hundred years old.


To overcome shyness, press one. For learned
optimism, press two. To end self-destructive
behaviour, press three. Maybe He's
Just a Bastard,
 press four ...
For a clue as to what this terminal really
does, I found it right next to a
"Cash Recycling Machine".

I tried to tell them I was a descendant of
St Stephen, but they wouldn't believe me.

I particularly liked how the would-be
contestant in the "Infectious Disease
200 metres" has not just got a broken
heart but bits of stuff on him, the
dirty thing.

Monday, March 26, 2012


When you're a stay-at-home dad, people are always trying to make you meet other stay-at-home dads.
Mostly it's stay-at-home mothers who do this. Not content to befriend other mums and match their kids up, they also like to cast their eyes around to see if anyone else is left standing, alone.
The number of times I've been pushed together with another equally nonplussed 40-something man is now well into the dozens. Match-making mums mean well, but it’s got to the stage where it wouldn’t feel strange if, before they introduced us, they patted our hair down and licked a hankie to wipe our faces.
"Now Trevor, this is Mike. Mike this is Trevor."
We’re standing there with our hands by our side looking at our shoes scuffing the dirt.
"Hi ... "
"Hi ... "
"Now you two play nicely and I'll be back in a while."
“And no squabbling.”
"And don’t forget to share."
Then they retreat and observe how we get on. We're like toddlers, only with a better knowledge of football. Oh, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes the other boy doesn't know about football at all. Or cricket. Or horse racing. And if I sound disappointed, you should see how they feel about my lack of interest in options trading, tree biology, cars, et cetera.
Tediously often, once Blind Date Bloke and I confirm we are both primary care givers while our wives are out working, the conversation can not just grind to a halt, it can leave the rails entirely, scattering carriages about like toys in a pitiful scene of carnage.
Similarly, my friend Elle had her first baby and against her best instincts joined a neighborhood mothers' group. She went once.
"Pretty much all we had in common was that we once all had sex at about the same time," she said.
Still, groups of mothers bond reasonably well by the look of it. Perhaps men tend to be more comfortable in their own company than women.
Come to think of it, we do seem to go to the toilet alone more often. And once inside we can stay there for ages, reading bog-lit, playing games on our phone, or just staring into space and reveling in the unfettered peace. My brother-in-law had a sleep in there during a dinner party recently. A doctor friend once had a male patient who was on the toilet so long his legs went numb and he had to be helped up.
And so we all have things to aspire to.
I swear women seem to go into the bathroom, do their business and come straight back out again. I think they get lonely.
My wife hates doing things by herself. On one famous occasion she insisted I go with her on the weekly supermarket trip. If it sounds unfair that I’m complaining, I should point out I was on crutches at the time and was as useful in a supermarket as a Zimbabwean dollar. All I managed to do was be sullen, then get in a fight with a woman who accused me of exploiting my crutchedness by queue-jumping. (In case she’s reading, we arrived at the same time. It was a 50-50.)
At least I wasn’t invited back. Months later my wife revealed my real role that night was “to keep me company”. Bizarre.


 ... it can be a beautiful thing.

There are nights on the town ...

... walks in the snow ...

... or a little bit of dancing and dress-ups. 

Sometimes, there's a bit of competitiveness,
a bit of peacocking ...

... and then there are times when there's
just no chemistry at all.

Usually for guys though, nothing helps lubricate a
friendship more than a bit of wrestling in ketchup.

One day my friend Helen approached me in our Beijing apartment compound.
“Trevor! There’s a new stay-at-home dad who’s moved in. You should meet him. He’s called Peter,” she gushed.
I tried not to sound too much like a grumpy old man.
“Now Helen,” I said, “what do I possibly have to gain from meeting new people?”
She rolled her eyes. But really, expat Beijing is a terrible place for this. With people always coming and going for their China postings, you have to meet new people all the time. Your own people meet new people, then you have to meet them as well. It’s bloody awful. And if you have two kids at two different schools – well, it doesn’t bear going into. Sartre said “Hell is other people”. I think he meant “other new people”.
What’s worse, the arrivals are staggered. It could happen at any time. You could be out walking and BANG – new person. It wouldn’t be so bad if they all arrived on the same day, say July 1, the start of the Australian financial year. You’ve done your taxes, now assess the new season’s people - choose which ones you might like, and pass over the others with the same beautiful emotional impunity a lawyer has in jury selection.
I know I was a new person once and people had to meet me, but that was different.
The day came for me to meet Peter. He had two daughters the same age as mine, so there were prospects for kids friendships there, which of course means a commitment between parents. But within minutes - first impressions and books-by-their-covers being two specialties of mine - I could tell this would be no Bro-mance made in heaven.
He’s ostensibly nice, but for me a bit too nice. Soft, gentle, quiet, reserved and retiring. He insists he likes football, but it takes an age to wheedle out of him that he kind of sort of supports Arsenal. I ask an Arsenal question and it’s clear he hasn’t paid attention for years. We flick through other potential topics. By profession he’s a lawyer - not one who stands up in court and shouts “LIAR!” but one who wades through reams of contracts ensuring the wording and punctuation is correct. It’s clear very early we have no coinciding interests. Not only that, we have a difference of manner that suggests all future interactions will be awkward. Within minutes there are pauses and nervy utterances of  “And ah …”
I already know I shouldn’t have taken this off-ramp from my quite happy existence. But it’s too late, now, isn’t it? While their dads are staring into space beside each other, our four girls are happily playing, sitting in a circle and sweetly making up stories.
“Girls get out of that!” I bark at my two as I pull them away. “You don’t even know these people!”
No, of course I don’t. You just can’t do that sort of thing, can you? We’re now in this, Peter and I together. They’ve just arrived for a 12-month stay. What if our kids become great friends?
Later I tell myself not to be so curmudgeonly, that it might be nice to expand my circle of companions to include someone with different interests. Who knows? Peter might surprise me.
He did. A few days after that first meeting, with another playground conversation flatlining, I try the old faithful: “So … any plans for the weekend?” I wasn’t expecting a grenade.
“Well after church on Sunday morning we’re going to this thing where you blah blah blahdi blah … “ and then he just faded out. He could have been discussing bombing the Forbidden City for all I knew.
I know, I know, it’s me, it’s not them. I shouldn’t be so childish. It’s just that I had 18 years of solid churchgoing, and the thought of it continuing when your parents can’t make you anymore, when there’s so much hedonism to get done instead, it just weirds me out a little. My wife is regretfully aware of this attitude of mine, which she fears can give rise to insensitivity.
“Right … and so what did you say then?” she asked.
I told her I'd snapped my neck back in Peter’s direction and cried: “CHURCH?! Did you say ‘CHURCH’?!”
No. I’m not into persecuting Christians. I merely closed my mouth again, and looked around to confirm that our kids were still not hating each other while I counted one less thing in common with my new companion.

In looking for photos I came across this.
What a great idea, I thought. Now every
time my daughters say those words
it's a 10 dollar fine. But it turned out
those aren't banknotes inside but
activity suggestions. It's still only a
slightly less great idea.  

Time went on, the seasons changed, Peter and I spent a bit of time together, and it wasn’t that bad. Well at times it was. But I’ve had worse. Sometimes we’d kick a ball with my youngest while awaiting the other girls. It turned out Peter had some football skills still present from his school days. Like many footballers, however, he just couldn’t talk about it.
I should point out I talk about more things than sport, but with Peter, we never really got out of first gear. Was he a nice guy? Yes. Harmless enough? Yes. Should I not be so churlish? Yes. Would my life have really been better without having to give of myself and make an effort with him for a year? Yes.
It took me back to my first ever interaction with another stay-at-home dad. It was in Australia, I was only two months into this new home career, and the dad I was matched with was not the remotest bit interested in my presence. Certainly we had little in common (this was the tree biologist), but this guy just really didn’t try. I can now console my guilty self with the knowledge that I was nicer to Peter than this tree guy had been to me. Perhaps tree guy was at an even later stage of the cycle than I’m at now, the grumpy old sod.

As long as we can get our quiet time, we're happy. In
searching for this photo I came across the tale of a
man who was super-glued to a toilet in Maryland,
USA. He'd sat on one in a Walmart store, not knowing
some prankster had put glue on the seat. He had to
go to hospital, with seat attached. It reminded me of
a prank played by myself and another 13-year-old boy
once when we put boot polish on a toilet seat in the
caravan park where I was staying with my dad while
house-hunting. A few hours later, while I was happily
watching TV, my dad started complaining of a
mysteriously itchy backside. This story ends
horribly, with me forced to inspect my dad's rear end,
 complete with a burning red ring around it. Never play
toilet pranks such as this, kids.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012




Surgeon General's Warning: Using these headphones may
cause the user inflammation, swelling, a rash on the face,
neck and scalp, and damage to joints, skin, kidneys,
blood, the heart and lungs. 

Football supporter gear:

I never knew Maradona played for Brazil. Or is that Pele
playing for Argentina?
Maybe this came from the dreams of the designer. Is this
the world's first fantasy football shirt?

Still on football, outside a large electronics mart I met this man ...

I noticed he was wearing a Portugal jacket, so I started talking to him about football.
"You like Portugal, then?" I said.
This country is actually a favourite topic of mine. Not just because Vasco da Gama is my hero, but because one piece of Chinese which has stuck in my head is that Portugal is said as Pu tao ya.
Rather than try to wrap their tongue around unfamiliar sounds, the Chinese use Mandarin syllables to approximate foreign language, in the same way English speakers call Italia Italy, for example.
It so happens the sounds in this example are the words for 'grape' (pu tao) and 'tooth' (ya). Thus, the Chinese name for Portugal is literally Grapetooth. A person from there is a Pu tao ya ren, or Grapetoothman.
I'm not sure which Chinese person settled on this originally, or what their attitude was towards Portugal.
Despite my passion for the topic, my man outside the electronics mart didn't seem to get it. So I tried some Chinese pronunciations of some famous Portuguese footballing names.
"Christiano Ronaldo? Luis Figo?"
He still didn't seem to get it, so I dropped it and went inside.
Later, I found him again, when I saw this ...

A whole electronics stall staffed by Chinese Portugal supporters? What was going on?
When I asked them what the story was, they asked if I wanted to buy an iPhone.
It seemed they had as little idea as I did why they had to go to their job every day decked out as Portugal fans. I was left to assume the boss had come across a box of the jackets and thought they looked quite smart.
Then I went off to another stall.

This time it was the Nike/Apple stall.
It seems that if you want to work in Chinese retail, wearing a uniform is important.
Any uniform will do.


Perhaps this person was being ironic.

Maybe it's art?

More likely the driver was thankful to have lucked in and found a parking spot noone else saw on such a busy morning. It's just a shame he or she didn't see this sign first. It would have made everything clear ...



*Seen any perverse parking in China lately? Did you take a photo of them? Do you have that cord that goes from your camera into your computer? Do you know how to send photos by "email"? Can you send them to me? Oh OK well don't worry about it then. No suit yourself.
But if you have, and you did, have, do and can, email them to
I will publish as many as humanly possible. And who knows - you might win a prize!
But more likely you will just feel good for a few minutes.
Then it will pass and it'll be back to same-old same-old for you.
But do it anyway.
And remember what we always say: When even the cops park like this ...

... what hope do we have, really?


Speaking of traffic, it's hard enough to get it flowing smoothly and safely in Beijing at the best of times, let alone when traffic flow systems conspire against us as well.
A few months ago while driving in the expat community of Shunyi, just outside Beijing, I was stopped at a set of traffic lights waiting to turn left from the Tianbei Highway into Anhua Lu. It's where you have to turn to get to a couple of large schools. Finally, the arrow went green, and I went left - straight into the path of oncoming traffic.
With my daughters in the back seat, I was horrified to see not one but two oncoming cars did not stop, or even slow down, but went straight on towards us. I accelerated and only just made it, and was left fuming at the rogue drivers who'd almost hit us.
But when I stopped around the corner to glare after them - I thought they might wave apologies or something - I was even more stunned to see that in fact it wasn't their fault. They too had had a green light to go straight ahead.
I have approached the intersection cautiously ever since. Then last week as I was approaching, I saw this:
Who'd have thought a set of lights that sends one car into
the path of another could result in this? The red car was in
my position, turning left with a green arrow. The beige one,
travelling straight with a green light, didn't miss. 

From the other angle, the beige car was heading the same
way as the cement truck in this shot (and yes, you could
make an argument to the truck driver that this light
appears pretty red).
Thankfully, noone was hurt. Surely it's only a matter of time.

I then found another such situation nearby, at the intersection of the Tianbei Highway and the Jingmi Highway (the green arrow turning left off the Jingmi sends traffic across the path of those heading north on the same road).

If you're approaching these intersections, be careful. And since the authorities don't appear to be noticing this state of affairs, perhaps someone reading this can alert the authorities. Schools should know who to approach. (And yes I looked around but could not find a police station).

Sunday, March 18, 2012


The guests were milling, the smoked salmon and caviar canapés were being served, the champagne, flown in for the occasion, was being politely sipped. The top brass had flown in, and everything had been meticulously planned for the China launch of a major US computer company’s much hyped new laptop. Then a song started up.

“If you wanna be my friend
Put my dick in your hand
Move it left, move it right
Try to lick, suck on it …”

What happened next was … noone did anything. The song kept going. The launch was on the forecourt of a major Beijing electronics chain. The song could be heard across the street. It was a dance number a local event planner obviously thought would give the function a funky edge. Clearly that planner had not studied English, at least not to the level of schoolboy anatomy.

And the above passage wasn’t just one verse. It seemed the only verse. So while 200 Chinese dignitaries nibbled away and exchanged pleasantries about the newest thing in laptop computers, every minute or so some needy man cried out for some attention to his penis.

Then his lady friend started singing and … oh my! It's fair to say she was actually no lady. She made her lewd friend sound like a choirboy. I can’t repeat what she said here but let’s just say she began demanding, with some urgency, that this man service her in a most uncompromising fashion.

Mercifully, the song came to a close.

And then it started again. It went round and round three or four times before it was at last time for the speeches. Next time, planners might ask an English speaker to check the lyrics. But it would probably never occur to most Chinese that people might sing about such things.*

A laptop computer, yesterday. How anyone can associate
a machine like this with images of people having sex is
beyond this correspondent ...

... although it might be significant that this man, using his
laptop in notorious filth-hole The Oval Office, refused to
show the contents of his screen for this photo.

OK, computer nerdgeeks may have worked out by now the
company involved was Intel. This is a photo of their
Ultrabook which appears on a large online computer
sales website. I include it because it may be the worst
promotional photo seen of any product in history. Are
they illegal or something?

Beijing used to be littered with lots of English signs which came out looking inappropriate, obscene and just plain funny. Among others there was the Dongda Anus Hospital and a green space dedicated to China’s ethnic minorities which went by the name of “Racist Park”.

Then one government official, known as a “wowser”, went around changing them all before the Beijing Olympics, and we all groaned and shuffled off home.

But sometimes when east meets west, when Chinese meets English in this country’s era of rapid change, the results can still be arresting.

I was dining with my little daughters in a restaurant featuring cuisine from the famed American food region of Kentucky. As we ate and I pondered the sweetness of the scene, I suddenly noticed the ambient music.

Back, get back,
Coz’ I’m a motherf--king f—ker, that’s that”.

The man went on. It was hard to make out the words, a problem even he seemed aware of judging by his habit of asking “Know what I’m sayin’?” But as well as I could gather, it seemed he too had been endowed with quite a large penis and he wanted to celebrate by singing about it. The girls thought it was “the silliest song ever!”

A friend took his six-year-old daughter to her dance class at one of Beijing’s leading academies. On this day she was trying hip hop, and there it was again: a Chinese teacher, a little girl in leotard and sequins, and a big African-American man singing about sexual intercourse. With escorts!

Sometimes it’s great fun. Sometimes you try to remove the kids. If you can’t, you might try coughing loudly at key moments. In the KFC I almost passed out.

Censoring the visual form can still be hard. With 99 per cent of the world’s clothes made in China, many saucy English-language garments find their way onto local markets via the back of a truck. I saw a 70-year-old man riding his bike wearing a cap that said “I Want Your Sex”. And it’s not unusual to see some innocent-looking girl obliviously wearing an X-rated T-shirt.

Trouble is, it only goes one way. I’m at no risk of putting on a Chinese song at, say, a daughter’s birthday party only to be told that Xiao Li is singing about doing the nasty. The Chinese recording industry isn’t ready for that yet. For now, people still mostly sing about hands holding other hands, not penises. No doubt that will come later as the country continues to reform and the Chinese wake up to the potential of the hand-relief ballad market.

Usually for the kids' music, if there's a choice I'll prefer
something like this ...

... over something like this.

iMe, a super-girly band drawn from the Asia-wide Super
Girl reality show. Despite posing on a bed, they're not
about to start using it as something other than
a platform for soft fluffy toys anytime soon.

And these girls, from S.H.E. aren't about to score. Not with
those hats.

These chaps were too busy down the salon ...

... and it's safe to rule these guys out of any sexual activity
for the foreseeable future.

This is a new Chinese variation on
the boy band genre. It's called a
Boy-and-Geezer band.

Beijing band 7+5 entertains Communist Party chiefs at the
Great Hall of the People during this month's National
People's Congress, which they opened with their smash
hits Consultative Process (of the Heart) and
Unanimous Love.

An example of erroneously
printed clothing. Everyone
knows it's a major faux pas
to leave chopsticks sticking
into a stylised loveheart.
It means "death".

For now, the Chinese must think we westerners are just a bunch perverts, that we can't even launch a computer without singing about genitals.

I sometimes feel the need to apologise and explain we're not all obsessed. Sometimes I'm just thankful most people listening can't understand English, or that my daughters can't yet understand that sort of English. Still, we have to be watchful. I've noticed our six-year-old Lani's just got a book called Gangsta Granny. Call me paranoid, but I'm going to check it for profanity.

* I’ve since found the song. For all this old dad knows it could be a worldwide smash on the hit parade! But you can look it up yourself if you’re not prudish and want to know what the crowd was being treated to that day. It’s called Juicy Pen and it’s by someone called DJ Ozi.

PS: This post comes with a graphic language warning. I should have put it at the top, really.


JEANS EXEC: Hey Xiao Wang! Come up with the blurb for our jeans label yet?
XIAO WANG: Yeah, thought I'd go with: "Do you like jeans? I am sune. You like it. Are you looking me? Ljuet attuact you. Put it an. You re fashian."
JEANS EXEC: Great. If that's not succeful I'll eat my hut.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


With the weather fining up, it was time to hit Chaoyang Park, Beijing's spacious patch of green on the north-east side. There, you can relax and enjoy a wide variety of amusement park rides. Just a few rules first ...

Luckily for me it was patriarchs only. No mothers and so on.

From the Space Flyers it was on to the 3D amusement castle! This sounds like some ride. I'm not sure if management might have gilded the lily but it promises quite a lot in a space little bigger than a squash court.

A few more types of people aren't allowed on the Children's Roller Coaster ...

"We had that Jeffrey Dahmer on here once. Spoiled it for everyone."

I was starting to get a bit worried about what sort of people this children's
amusement park usually attracted. From the signs you'd assume it was
permanently littered with the heavily inebriated, lurching from
ride to ride and terrorising family types. This was promoted as the
sweet-sounding "Dolphin Princess" ride. Do fights often break out here?
And is it princessy enough to trigger a stroke? What's more, noone would
tell me what these "consequences" were that we were always being
threatened with. We passed on the Dolphin Princess.

You have 10 seconds to mull it over. Then, if you
can find it in your heart ... 

Thankfully, you can blow all the bubbles
you want. Aww ...

Another favourite pastime here is wedding spotting, although it's not the ceremonies themselves. In China, couples don full wedding garb and have their photos taken a few days before the big day. This way, the guests don't have to stand around waiting while the photographer is faffing about. It's up there with gunpowder as one of China's best ideas, even if it feels a bit odd to take a stroll through a park and see brides and grooms everywhere.

The ride of their lives! One of about a dozen wedding photo shoots in the
park last Tuesday afternoon alone.

In a park such as this, there are backdrops aplenty.

"I now pronounce you man, wife and horse."

A bug's wife.

What makes that last photo more bizarre is ... the giant ladybug? It's a public toilet.

Monday, March 12, 2012


My Chinese is amazingly excellent. And 1.3 billion people will tell you so.
It’s hard to explain. I must be some kind of linguist. Every time I so much as cough in Chinese people come crawling out of drains and jumping out of trees to praise me. They gasp, genuflect, wonder why I’m not working elsewhere, perhaps as a president, or a professor. Evangelists with the power of tongues sound worse than me. Send money now!
But really, I’m not sure these locals are being genuine. They are, after all, famously inscrutable. You couldn’t scrute them if you tried. I see others speak Mandarin and they seem to know a lot more than me, in the same way that a NASA scientists seems to know more than a goat.
If there is doubt about my Mandarin fluency, my mistake might have been learning Spanish first. Of course I didn’t “learn” it. I “picked it up” on a South American holiday. “I am Australian” is “Soy Australiano”. What a piece of piss languages are, I thought in my own.
I was posted to China and laughed in its face. “Throw as much Mandarin at me as you like, China!”
I studied, a little, tiny bit, in my pre-China home of Hobart, Tasmania (Motto: "Noone should ever move to Beijing from here.") I found the only two Chinese people in town who weren’t too busy running a restaurant to teach me. In a shock twist, they were bookish, academic types teaching at the university. After a few lessons they assured me my Chinese was fantastic, and off I went.
Bloody hell.
If the South Americans spoke a form of pidgin English, I got to China and discovered the people spoke Martian. Mandarin is a language that is – how shall I put this? – not much like English, and really, really hard.
After six-plus years I’ve learned how to get by. I have a Chinese teacher, and in a minute I will show you her photo. Sometimes I lie about who’s who in photos just to get a laugh. But this one is real. I’m warning you ahead of time so you’ll take me seriously.

A mandarin, or old Chinese court official.
These men used to communicate using a
combination of northern Chinese dialects.
Jesuit missionaries later named this language
after the officials themselves. So basically
it was government-speak, or bureaucratese,
which is why it's been hard to understand
ever since.

The first Chinese teacher there ever
was, Confucius, an Anglicised
name approximated from the
English "confuse us".

There are some basic rules to Mandarin, and here they are:
1. It is tonal. It contains four tones. These should be avoided like the plague. Now I know what you’re thinking, this is a bad thing to say, especially for a wordsmith. “Like the plague” is a cliché. Mind you, clichés are the tools of the trade and have stood the test of time. But each to their own.
2. When trying to sound like a Beijinger, try not to sound so much like an academic from the emperor’s court, and more like a pirate from Dorset.
Beijingers sound rough and shear the ends off words. Yi dian means “a little” and could sound like ee dee-an. Instead it comes out as ee deeyARRR.
Shi, bu shi? is verbal punctuation meaning “right or wrong?” It should sound like Shuh, boo-shuh? But my favourite old Beijinger in my pool locker room belts it out as Shuh b’ARRR? He revels in the Beijing accent, though I sometimes swear the main rule for responding to someone is “just make a noise”.
In any case, I’ve embraced Shuh b’ARRR. People usually laugh, because I don’t look much like an 80-year-old Chinese guy, but at least sometimes I don’t add ME HEARTIES! at the end.

A Chinese character.
In English we have 26 letters to learn.
The Greeks get by with 24, and the
Irish 20. The Chinese have about
 40,000 characters. You wouldn't use
all of these every day, but one
dictionary lists more than 100,000.
To be literate, to be able to read a
newspaper, you need to know some
3,000. This is the Chinese character for
"love". All those strokes and you still
only come up with the word "ai".
Thus, love gets complicated. To be
fair this is an old-fashioned character.
The government simplified many
characters in 1956 and 1964 to make
Chinese easier to learn. I'm waiting
for the next round of simplifications
before I try to learn some.

This is the character for 'cai', meaning to pick,
or guess. The internet explains that the original,
semantic (meaning-bearing) pictograph is on the
right and its redundant semantic determinative
(which is also its dictionary classifier) is at left.
Wikipedia - making Chinese fun again!

In Shanghai they sound finer. Beijingers sound more guttural, as if they’re about to clear something from their throat, which is actually usually the case. Shenme? means “What?” and should sound like shummah. In Beijing it’s shemARR. In Shanghai it’s more like szemma? If Beijingers sound like pirates, the Shanghainese sound like a radio not quite tuned properly.
So I’ve learned the accent, I’ve learn some slang, and of course I’ve learned the swearwords. But tones just get me into trouble. My teacher, who despite her Facebook photo is a genuine teacher and not one of the many teacher/masseuses who advertise in town, gets driven to despair.
daan with third tone.”
“I don’t do tones,” I say.
This is a bit like saying I don’t use eggs in my omelettes. And it probably infuriates my teacher in the same way I’m enraged when my wife says: “I don’t do north-south-east-west”. (I accept she’s spatially-challenged, but when we come up with a better system, I’ll let her know.)

Down the ages, learning Chinese became more fun.

And then teachers started looking like this.
It's Zhu Songhua, a 30-year-old
primary school teacher from Jiangsu
Province. She appeared on a TV game
show and then boomed across the internet
in photos like this, earning the tag "China's
Sexiest Female Teacher". She has since become
a topic of fascination for millions of
sweaty-palmed young boys across the nation.
But not for married fathers. I keyed in
"Chinese teacher" and this is what came up.
Honest. Never heard of her before.

One problem is so many Chinese words sound the same, only they have different tones. I’ve mentioned this example before but it’s outrageous language chiefs still haven’t addressed this dangerous, potentially life-threatening situation: The word bi (pronounced bee) can mean pen, nose, compared-to, and vagina.
I was once chatting with a woman whose nose looked like a pen and ended up sounding like a dribbling madman. And that was when I was keeping it clean.
Apart from silk and temple, si can mean four or death, which is why the Chinese say four is an unlucky number. Mimi can mean secret, or boobs.
I know English has homonyms too, so for the Chinese it can be hard when they’re learning their language over there, or when they’re standing in the wind trying to wind in their kite, wondering if their efforts are invalid or a person in a wheelchair.
But there’s a lot more of it in Chinese, and that’s where tones are useful for some. I used to get angry when people didn’t get my drift. If a Frenchman asked for some steek in Australia, the waiter would guess he wanted steak. But in Chinese, a different tone is a different word. You’re not just mis-pronouncing steak, you could be asking for a space shuttle.
Still, thanks to the context of a sentence, usually my meaning gets understood, though it’s not delivered in the sing-songy lilt that can make Mandarin so pleasing to the ear. In English, I can sound articulate, urbane, even educated. In Chinese I usually sound like I’m standing in overalls with a pitchfork, belting out monotone words like I’m knocking bricks out of a wall.

Not joking now, this is my Chinese
teacher, shot during an intensive
one-on-one lesson with me. No, it was
when she went in to get some fancy
photos done. She says a lot of Chinese
girls go in for this sort of thing
these days. I know what it looks
like, but she's a really good teacher.
She teaches my wife, too. 

Sometimes Chinese politeness gets in the way. My wife the doctor looks Chinese, so locals expect she can speak Mandarin well. In her first week at her clinic she tried to book a driver (si ji). The number four is another si. And a chicken is a ji. The tones went wrong, but the receptionist said she’d get onto it straight away. The head receptionist rang back a minute later asking if the new doctor really wanted four chickens and what the hell kind of medicine she was up to.
La means spicy, but also “to pull”. My friend the Australian diplomat once tried to order spicy chicken and thought he should add ba, a little polite word to imply “if that’s ok?” When the waitress asked what he wanted, he beamed “la ji ba!” The waitress blushed, and that was when my friend learned that “ji ba” is slang for penis.

Mandarin seems basic, but once you
peel back the layers you find it is
many parts stuck together. With a
few white bits.

On the street one day I bumped into Mr Zhao, a man I hardly knew from my swimming pool, who said he was off to work. “What salary?” I demanded. “Err, a normal salary,” he said back. Months later I learned that while gongzi is salary, I’d needed to say gongzuo for “job”.
But I don’t always sound like a rude dullard. Sometimes I make the mundane sound dramatic, which I suppose is a skill writers should have.
I always thought swimming pool was youyong shi. Turns out a pool is a chi. Mr Zhao and I were standing beside an otherwise empty pool one night, so I tried to say “Tonight, this is our shi”. How he laughed. Two years later I learned I had gazed thoughtfully into the distance and said profoundly: “Tonight, this is our business.”
Or I might have said “Tonight, this is our shit”. They sound very similar.
Near dinnertime last week I went to pick a few things up at the shop, and told our new Ayi (maid) not to give the children any food. When I returned the kids were feasting on chewing gum, given to them by Ayi. When I’d calmed down I realised I’d left the house declaring: “I must go to the shop! The children have no food!” Clearly she thought she’d help our Dickensian plight with what little she had. 
One trick is to know a few key phrases, a few pieces of slang. Practice them and deliver them – hopefully at appropriate moments – and bang, people think you’re fluent. Then of course the trouble starts. They spurt out some long stream of words and I’m left there staring at them with my mouth open, having morphed in a second from Russell Crowe in A Brilliant Mind to Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.

Our daughter Evie returning home from
work, yesterday.

It’s a roller coaster, but roller coasters are fun. One high came at a dinner party at my in-laws’ when, thanks to a poster on my kids’ wall, I was able to say what a moth was in Chinese, whereas my brother-in-law could not.* He’s been here for 20 years, calls himself fluent in Mandarin, and is the boss of a law firm. To be fair he deals in corporate law, not moth law. But still I, and not he, was the toast of the Chinese guests, an awkward social situation I carefully defused by looking his way and bellowing “IN YOUR FACE!”
But another night in my pool locker room one local marveled at my Mandarin capabilities. I think I had just fired off one of my big guns, telling people I had “gone up sevens and come down eights” (qi shang, ba xia). It’s a piece of Beijing slang meaning one was discombobulated, all over the place.
I strutted into the sauna with a smirk on my face, and greeted an old local with the most basic Chinese there is.
“Ni hao!”
He looked up.
How could he have mistaken that? I expanded it into “Are you well?”
“Ni hao ma?”
He just looked more baffled, and actually shook his head in bewilderment. So we abandoned the whole exercise of saying hello. I can tell you, this is a lot worse when you’re standing there in the nude.

Another Chinese character, yesterday.

* Obviously I’ve forgotten what “moth” is now. That’s not the important bit.