Saturday, December 27, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

1. Give Less of a Fuck
Don't confuse this attitude with nihilism - the most current form of human cowardice. I mean there are things that a person might worry about: reputation; causing offence to other people; the standard of service offered to customers. But life is way too short to be eager to please, and you can't please wankers, so don't try. And most people have undesirable criteria for being pleased anyway. But don't listen to me, watch this

2. Finish my second novella
This will require sacrificing other worthwhile activities, and maybe one or two friendships too. There are always excuses for delaying such things, but you can't wait to be old enough or wise enough. The future is now.

3. Finish Anything Goes: An Advanced Reader of Modern Chinese
It doesn't sound like a tall order to finish one textbook in the space of 1 year. But I am living in a 花花世界 (lit. Flower-flower world) a world of temptations so this will require willpower and involve fluctuations in enthusiasm.

4. Worry less about love
These things usually happen best when unforced. And living in the mysterious East has taught me that there's nothing natural or inevitable about how sex-obsessed our Anglo-American culture is. I have never been to Australia, and never watched a cricket match but I can't stop watching this

5. Push myself musically
I'm unlikely to improve as a guitarist, but my new hobby is learning and writing Chinese songs. I have no idea what this will lead to, but I like it a lot.

6. Just Do It
This is closely tied in with number 1. But as Baz Luhrman said in Sunscreen, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself too much either. Most of what you do is a matter of chance. On my Chinese blog, I recently wrote a post entitled "Words without Translation" words in both languages that had no translation into the other. One word I forgot to mention was "geek." In China, the concepts of looking down upon the bookish, or separating the real world from the world of books are very foreign. To illustrate this point, most people use the Sui dynasty poem 书中自有黄金屋/书中自有颜如玉 "In books there is always a Golden house, in books there is always a beautiful woman." I just like to use the fact that they're realy fucking into reading books to illustrate this. Nobody who has lived, or knows of the recent history of this country could be unaware of the limitations of being a 读书人 lit. "read-books person" or intellectual.
Anyway, I'm not sure where this is going, but somehow it leads to the conclusion, if you want to achieve something, just get the fuck on with achieving it.

Monday, December 15, 2008


If anybody still reads this blog, I encourage them to reply with their own answers.

Most Interesting Thing You Have Learnt
With learning a language, my growth in knowledge is much more obvious than in previous years. But I'm sure I've forgotten a lot of useful shit as well.
There's a particularly enchanting Chinese song that I sang at KTV the other night. Learning how to sing it hasn't made it any less mysterious. That is the response that springs to mind and I ain't gonna redraft this blog post.

Most interesting person you have met
Almost as much as the Southwestern bookselling experience, I've conversed with a higher volume of new people than some people do in an entire lifetime. But there's much more opportunity to get to know the person than when trying to sell them something, overall I'll go for Huizhou Train Station Lady, but there are numerous possible candidates who would be equally deserving.

Best Place You Have Been To
My current bedroom has a special place in my heart. Apart from the absence of any heating, it has no obvious defect.

Proudest achievement
It would be nothing related to teaching as I still have good days and bad days. It would be starting (and finishing) "Chinese Language and Culture" or finally getting my ass back onto Youtube. However imperfectly I did both of those things, it's still a huge step to have got them done.

Laughed hardest when
I asked a Student to describe an important friend in her life, and she went on to describe Adolf Hitler. For the next lesson, I got hold of a Chinese translation of "First They Came For the Jews" and read it out to the whole class.

Was at my lowest when
I broke up and had the most bone-chilling helloooooo-oooo within the space of a few seconds

Best Film You Watched
I'm now a card-carrying member of the Youtube generation, but the only trip I took to the cinema was a worthy one, so I'll say "The Dark Knight"

Best Book You Read
Again, I seem to be finished with books as physical objects, I have a pathetic showing compared to 2006, but I'll say for fiction The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton and for non-fiction Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler.

Best Memory
It's been an incredible year, I say that every year, but 2007 was a non-starter by comparison, but it would have to be saying farewell to the Students in Longchuan. We did karaoke and played Chinese party games in a hall usually reserved for the solemnest lectures, I'm sure you can easily picture what such a hall looks like.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Now I'm not normally comfortable with the idea of being obsessed over but...

but I'll translate this blog post about me by an 18 year-old English Major to the best of my ability
For reasons unknown to me, it was set out like a poem, so I won't deviate from the original. It has the quality of freewriting that reminds me of my most prolific period of blogging back in late 2005

Yesterday I went out with Kevin
Originally I expected him to have an entourage
But when I got to the school gate, he was alone
He took me to eat at a hotpot place
Unfortunately my skin is too sensitive
I couldn't eat that stuff.
I just sat and watched him eat
I watched him use chopsticks which was somewhat amusing
So I took it upon myself to try to help him.
He let me have a look at his notepad
He's written a Chinese song
I helped him correct the mistakes in his writing
His Chinese handwriting is just like a child-
How cute.
He was also learning a Chinese song
"Let the Whole World Love Completely"
After he'd finished eating we waited for xiaolong at the Technical School gates
Kevin used his gloves to wipe a place for me to sit
He's really worthy of the title "English gentleman!"
There a few strangers who only dared to say "hi" to Kevin
He had no opportunity to be friendly to them
Together we went to KTV.
He allowed his acquaintances in there to address him as orangutan
He sang the Chinese songs "Courage" "Allow the World to Love Completely" and "Let's sail together in a little row boat"
I quite admire him.
It was there that I discovered he has been different to us all along.
Cultural differences prevent him from understanding our behaviour
From now on, we must work together
to create some beautiful memories for him in Changde.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Letters to a Young Waijiao

You don't have to be good at Chinese to know that 老师 'teacher' and 外教 'foreign teacher' are two different words. You don't have to be inexperienced with China to find this creepy.

Here are my seriously fallible points about how not to act. They run contrary to what many people with China-experience will tell you, and maybe I will change my mind on some of them. But here goes:

1. Don't believe what people say about you
You're probably not a wealthy, well-connected person with loose sexual morals. Although most Chinese people will think that you are.

2. Don't feel you have to tolerate your linguistic identity
Finding opportunities to converse in Chinese can be an uphill struggle. Lots of people see you as a toy to practise English with, others will not be able to get their head around the fact that a foreigner speaks their language, and therefore not understand a word of your perfect Mandarin. Be firm and be thick-skinned.

3. Hello is not a swear word after all
This is easy to forget after being in China for a while. No words are bad, it is the way people use them that is bad. "Hello" is a word that is capable of a lot of friendliness and even tenderness.

4. Teaching oral English is a kind of performance
Language teaching always has a visual element to it anyway. I once got indignant about being required to be different to their Chinese teachers, but Chinese youngsters are generally a lot more passive than what a Western person might be used to. "The best teacher makes you forget that there's a teacher in the room" is a good sentiment, but it simply can't work in a class of more than a dozen students. They're looking to you - perform.

5. You are merely leading horses through water
Your school may try to convince you that you are at fault if some Students are uncooperative, or blaming you for unsatisfying progress. I have been directly involved with formal learning for all but a few months of my life, and in my experience, a person who is not self-motivated will simply not learn. You can't build an ark for everyone.

6. You are not the Messiah - honestly
You are here to do a job, not to make dreams come true. The education system here is corrupt in a way that will take more than a generation to fix.

7. You are a plaything - get used to it
You might be an excellent teacher, but that's not why you're sought after. You might be excellent at Chinese, but that also isn't why you are sought after. You are wanted because of wht you look like and the linguistic identity that it carries. People in authority will often seem corrupt and indifferent to/ignorant of the learning process. They might well be. But that doesn't make them terrible people, they were fucked up in their turn by fools in old-style trench-coats.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Part of being an adult is to not believe that there is always a power above us that gives a shit about us.

At various times, I have had sleepless nights worried about displeasing the Catholic Church, various academic institutions, and businesses.

None of those organiations is damaged by lone individuals who struggle to obey. None will expend any energy on judging me harshly.

If there is a God, he is clearly not an all-powerful and ever-loving creator who intervenes in our daily lives and judges us if we thing naughty things about the neighbour's wife.

They Students of this University are forced to obey, without ever being given a satisfactory reason why. The people they are accountable to go all the way from their own roommates to the party cadres who only appear a couple of times a year to make lengthy speeches.

To make the best of one's opportunities in such nakedly indifferent and self-serving surrounding is an act of rebellion.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


I've always maintained that blogging is not the pursuit of happy, fulfilled people. The two times when I've blogged prolifically are: 1. Just before I came to China and I had nothing to do and 2. When I lived in Longchuan and needed to share some thoughts with the English speaking world.

Now it appears I've just experienced the end of a relationship that barely began(I don't intend to be out of the game for long).

I read an article in the Guardian this morning that's about genius, but I read as being about "excellence".

It says that to become excellent at something one must practise for about 10,000 hours over a space of 10 years.

Fuck it!

Oh, by the way, I finally added more Youtube videos

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Joe the Plumber

I came across an interview with Joe Wurzelbacher in the Guardian posted just after Ohio was called for Obama.

Wurzelbacher said: "You know, fame is fleeting, leaves you hungry, leaves you cold, leaves you tired. Fortune never comes with it."

The privileges and special attention that come with being a Laowai are starting to make me deal with strangers in ways I never thought I was capable of.

After being a door-to-door salesman, I know something about the early adulthood realization that one isn't special, and the world is only interested in us in terms of what it can use us for.

Especially now that I have a girlfriend, in recent weeks I've had to be firm with several young adults, from friends all the way to complete strangers, that their situation - keenness to improve their English and familiarise themselves with Western Culture - doesn't make 'em special, and doesn't entitle them to special attention.

I've been writing a lot about this on my Chinese blog, and had a few angry responses, especially considering as I've written a lot about the virtues of foreign language acquisition too. But when one has a blog that has a large and varied readership, one must pause to remind people that this is just another means of communication, and probably not the best way to get familiar with a person's real character.

I've been bringing my guitar into class in recent weeks, mostly to practise the use of abstract nouns like "nostalgia" and "ecstasy." And I've also tried to use music to demonstrate how humans are innately irrational. I could just as easily have used a Presidential Election campaign, or the latest (excellent) episode of South Park to demonstrate the same thing: available here

Last night, as I was about to fall asleep, I remembered this passage from Call of the Wild that I first read when I was 18. I subsequently realised that it would be perfect to paraphrase for the beginning of my new novella.

there is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive - Jack London

There's the best translation I came across.

As well as illustrating that despite being happy and moved with the election result, and the footage that has come back from America. I am still highly mistrustful of any kind of mob mentality, not just the reactions I get here in China, the kinds of things I've always had apprehensions about: Socialism, Christianity, Obamamania...

Orwell said (something like): "The purpose of Political language is to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable, and give the impression of solidity to pure wind." "Change" and "Yes we can" have no more solidity than "4 more years!" did.

Monday, October 20, 2008


When trying to achieve something positive, it is adviseable to avoid vampires. That is, people who suck life out of things, but don't breathe anything back in.

The generation of Chinese born since 1980, especially those born after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 are widely known as "The Little Emperors."

The two obvious reasons are systemised birth control and an increase in prosperity that had once been unthinkable. Many children have four grandparents and no siblings, and grow accustomed to being pandered to. It's not unusual to come across a young Chinese person who has wildly unreasonable ideas about how important they are, and how much time you should give them.

I could go on about how the Chinese have historically placed a lot of hope in their children, but that's not what I want to focus on.

The world has many useless people who simply aren't going anywhere, but when it comes to kids what can one do? I tell myself that the only moral and sensible thing to do is to leave them the fuck alone and give them time to daydream, a much more effective study-method than the ones in practise here. But that's seldom an option in China.

Compared to the generation that was young in the 1960s, the young Chinese that I work with all day every day, are self-confident, hungry for knowledge, and low on hypocrisy. But I wish I could be seen by more people for what I am - somebody who came to this University JUST to do a job.

Friday, October 17, 2008

God's Grandeur
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday evening. I brought my guitar to a friend's house to give him and his friends a listen. His wife and son were out of town so they were taking the opportunity to have a mini school reunion and I was the entertainment.

I drank about half a bottle of brandy, and then started drinking baijiu.

I woke up this morning, in my own bed, but I have no recollection of what happened after I started drinking baijiu.

I must have had the presence of mind to make my own way home, or the Chinese-speaking ability to tell them where to take me, but I need to find out what happened

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

In River Town Peter Hessler wrote of his time livng in a remote, impoverished part of China:
“I had never had any idealistic illusions about my Peace Corps ’service’ in China; I wasn’t there to save anybody or leave an indelible mark on the town. If anything, I was glad that during my two years in Fuling I hadn’t built anything, or organized anything, or made any great changes to the place. I had been a teacher, and in my spare time I had tried to learn as much as possible about the city and its people. That was the extent of my work, and I was comfortable with those roles and I recognized their limitations.”

He lived there in the days before having a QQ number was as common as having hot water, and before it was the norm to own a mobile phone.

This evening, I entered a classroom that looked like what it was. The classroom of 30Students who have a barely qualified teacher, with greaseblock walls and a concrete floor.
Everywhere I go, people ask me a question I doubt they have ever asked before: "can I be your friend?" a question I don't have the energy to deconstruct several times a day. It's very much the opposite of the life Peter Hessler claims to have chosen for himself. He was hungry for knowledge, and I'm greedy for it. And I want everybody to know.

But as it is, I'm starting more friendships than I could ever possibly sustain, and getting more enviable opportunities than I could possibly take advantage of.
The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself, and it's great to live in a place where nobody talks about the good old days. Clearly for me, these are the good old days

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tonight, I will take my guitar to a new friends' house. As well as playing some of the classical guitar pieces that I always play, I've printed off the chords and lyrics to some pop and folk songs that I think he'll like.

There's a lyric in Going Nowhere by Oasis that says:

I'm gonna be a millionaire
so can you take me there
wanna be wild
cause my life's so tame

When I was 16 and hearing these songs, I would daydream about an unknown date when I would be performing them, or something of my own of a similar power. Now however, it is a privilege just to know that these songs exist.

In "Amadeus," Salieri describes an early work by Mozart as being "filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing."

The book that I'm currently starting to write begins with a scene that is largely based on memory, but almost everything about the memory I find indescribable. The 2 solutions I can think of are to either be deliberately unfathomable, as in 'la filia che piange' by TS Eliot; or to be minimalistic about what one chooses to describe.

I'll attempt both, and let time sort out which is better.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

This is It

I'm doing it. I'm going to write creatively again. The first scene of my new...thing... is at a funeral, I don't really know much after that. You heard it here first.

I'm in Hunan, Changde now. Everything's too new to really have, let alone express opinions yet. And most pleasent experiences I find unbloggable, so from this day forward, No News is good news.

But I will occasionally need a window to shout through, and express things that wouldn't be appropriate to express on my Chinese blog so you'll be hearing from me here again.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm currently reading The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton. Here's the dialogue of Syme getting recruited as an undercover detective.

"I really have no experience," he began.
"No one has any experience," said the other, "of the battle of Armageddon."
"But I am really unfit-"
"You are willing, that is enough," said the unknown.
"Well, really," said Syme, "I don't know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.'
"I do," said the other- "martyrs."

This book expresses hatred of two advanced ideas of Chesterton's age (it was published in 1908). The advanced ideas are:
1. Good and evil are social constructions and not universal and sacred.
2. Great art must shock and upset people.

There are numerous passages that make you want to stop and applaud, or dog-ear the page as I did. Here are some:

he knew that his enemy was a terrible fighter, and that probably his last hour had come.
He felt a strange and vivid value in all the earth around him, in the grass under is feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. He could almost fancy that he heard the grass growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers were springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow - flowers blood-red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring.

The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes ojected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.

Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule mankind, if I could feel for once, that you had suffered a real agony, such as I-

As well as being thrilling, it's helped me crystallise some ideas that might help me finally get on with this second novella I'm trying to write. To place anarchism against conservatism; radicalism against moderation; youth against age; folk religion against strict orthodoxy; and see what comes out in the end. I think my time as a teacher and my recent trip to Ireland gave me a strong enough cast of characters, and a book of folk tales I read over a year ago gave me the skeleton of a story. So fingers crossed.

Oh, my Chinese blog is very slow an difficult to access on this proxy but it's

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Misconceptions of China

Those who travel to China form lots of misconceptions of the place and many take these misconceptions back to the mysterious West and spread them. I would like to balance out these malicious lies with some of my own.
They are all debatable but some are barely even matters of opinion.

Strangers approaching you speaking English=friendly
Strangers muttering about you in front of you=rude and uncultured

It's a common occurence, particularly in towns full of University Students to have young and attractive people approach you with the sentence "would you like me to be your translator?" or more bluntly "can I help you?"
Does this mean that they roam the streets all day offering help to able-bodied adults who appear to be minding their own business? or cripples, or beggars, or old ladies? I never even saw a Chinese person acknowledge a stranger who wasn't of foreign appearance.
As for those who talk about you in front of you, well that also happens to me in the English-speaking world, so it never really bothered me. But as I got to a level where I understood what most of them were saying I realised that things like "he's so handsome" and "I can't approach him, my English is fucking rubbish" are much more common than racial slurs (I'll get to racial slurs in a minute if I remember). It's if they go into the local dialect that they're probably taking the piss.

Many people lack inquisitiveness and initiative. This is the result of Communist tyranny, and more recently, vapid consumerism
Read up on ancient Chinese history and mythology. This is not an exclusively modern phenomenon. And is it really exclusively Chinese anyway?

Western style industrialisation/consumerism is stripping Chinese culture of everything that was once valuable about it
At both leaving parties in Longchuan, Students (aged 16-19) were pouring coke into paper cups and gan beiing* to the time about to pass and for the things that are yet to come. That's coca-cola or pepsi, there were both on the table. My mental image of them raising their cups and then draining them in unison is a very unusual real-life example of innocence and justifiable optimism.

Although Coke has been available in China for well under a century, and ganbeiing beer and baijiu dates back into the mists of time, the latter is unhealthy, unpleasant, and (as far as I'm aware) completely unnecessary.

*ask a Chinese friend what ganbeiing is.

Chinese people drive selfishly
They drive like idiots. Most drivers don't wear seatbelts, most motorcyclists don't wear helmets, and the lawlessness of the roads would disgust Sergio Leone. But clearly it's not selfish. It's more like, self-destructive.

Chinese people don't discuss, or express opinions on, major issues in public places
You just have to learn the language and enjoy earwigging other peoples' conversations to know that this is simply not true. As with anywhere, the majority of people prefer to chat shit about nothing than to put the world to rights.

In China, image and presentation are everything. Genuine quality is nothing
In history, for example during the SARS outbreak in 2003, obsession with keeping up appearances, has done great damage.
But just because some people live beyond their means (having lived in America I can't imagine anybody doing such a thing), and few people, however friendly, ever actually invite you into their living quarters. It's not necessarily because their living quarters are shamefully squalid, it might be because you have B.O.

Chinese girls (aged 16-25)fall neatly into two categories, traditional and westernized
Let's do an association of common words attached to these two archetypes:
TRADITIONAL-refined, virginal, uptight, remote, can sing but can't dance, hypocritical, virtuous, incorruptible, giggly, irritating
WESTERNISED-bubbly, promiscuous, talkative, honest, vibrant, confident, potentially mad, can dance but make white men look rhythmic, confident, giggly, irritating

I suppose I met a few girls who fell neatly into one category or the other, but people are much more interesting and adaptable than that.

Although appearance and face are very important in China, we should refrain from judging people by their appearance
Well, you shouldn't comlpetely judge anybody by their appearance, of course. But what about these guys who dye their hair orange and shape it like a pineapple. They've taken time and effort to look like a complete douche. Of course it says a lot about them.

There is a connection between the level of noise pollution and the fact that it's a totalitarian state
In any Chinese city, there is an obscene amount of noise from shouting, car horns, and really loud, really shit music.
In the early days, I thought this was because the subjects of a tyranny are frightened of the sound of their own thoughts. But then, I realised that the noise was made with consistency, regularity, and efficiency, so is probably not the responsibility of the Chinese Communist Party.

I'll get onto the issues of the role of the foreigner and the very real problem of racism, if and when I can be bothered.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'm off home tomorrow. I'm in Hong Kong now. It's two weeks since I wound up in Longchuan and I've been mostly ill since then. I've also started a blog in Chinese, so to those who are interested, I will post a link as soon as I know how.

I have however, (re)discovered the work of Ivor Biggun to prepare me for home.

Just as Longchuan is rel China, Ivor Biggun is real England. Bring it on

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


In one of his immortal sketches, George Carlin ranted about stuff.

Today, I had the end-of-term party for the other middle-school I teach in. The one on the other side of the river (tracks).

I gave a much lengthier speech in Chinese. Last time, the last few sentences were drowned out by applause, but this time everybody listened to every word. In the absence of a guitar, one of the Students held their MP3 player up to the microphone to impovise a karaoke session (in their school assembley hall).

The whole thing is indescribable.

Among the stuff I've been given, there are lots of traditional Chinese stuff, a map of China from a student called Shayne Ward (because I said I would love to travel China if I had the chance), and countless letters, cards and photographs.

It's all stuff that one can never wish to dispose of.

Monday, June 30, 2008

I've finished all work commitments here in Longchuan, and now I'm just getting ready to leave. I had the end-of-term party where I briefly played guitar and made a speech in Chinese. This was followed by the Captains of all the classes making thankyou speeches to me, and the only one who didn't begin with 虽然-'although' won a prize for best speech.

This was followed by traditionally aggressive Chinese party-games, and looting of the Western snacks I'd hauled back from Hong Kong.

I've never been one for missing people or places. Probably because I never think about the possibility of never seeing them again. But the highs of this experience will probably be impossible to recapture (which is no problem), because China's at a unique point in its history, which happens to coincide with the most important (and infuriating) time of the Students' lives.

Whereas William Blake said:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild-flower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

I feel as if I've lived eternity in the past (almost) 2 months, so somebody find me a wildflower.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

In Aldous Huxley's Those Barren Leaves Francis Chelifer invents a game to take the tedium out of office work. It brings, he boasts, all the thrills of the fairground - the big dipper, the roller-coaster - right to your desk. All you have to do is pause for a moment in your daily grind and ask yourself: Why am I doing this? What is it all for? Where will it end? Ask yourself these questions thoughtfully enough, and though firmly seated in your office chair, you will feel like the void has opened beneath you, and you are sliding faster and faster into nothingness.

Well, here goes. I'll begin, unsurpsisingly, with a quote from a writer. In his 1972 lecture, 'Philately and the Postman,' Alan Garner pronounced:

Creativity in teaching is not to turn a random block of individuals into musicians, painters, authors, because any of them who are going to be these things, will become them in spite of you, certainly not because of you.

Having asked myself Mr Chelifer's question. That is, why am I teaching, when most of the time I don't enjoy it, and sometimes I feel like taking anything just to get the hell out of it.
In the classroom, I've recently taken the strategy of trying to make them forget that I am there. Of course, there have been good and disastrous consequences. But an almost invariably successful tactic was:

to write short plays for the Students to read, enjoy and ultimately, to provide them with the raw materials to write their own. Teaching, like most jobs, is often unpleasent and frequently pointless. But, to use another symbol from Alan Garner's lecture:

Left alone, the child, in my experience, will climb into the astronaut's seat; but the teacher is too often yelling at him to come down and concentrate on the scrap iron.

The problem here with trying to give Students a leg-up into the astronaut's chair is that most of them are so fucking passive. And I'm no good at motivating people who aren't self-motivated. In fact, it goes against what I believe in to try to motivate people who aren't self-motivated, or allow some jumped-up blackboard scribbler to motivate me. So I intend to be out of the teaching game forever within a year. Not that I berate teaching or the people who do it - but it would go against who I am to try to make a career of it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

torrents of muddy water bore down on the ruins of the town

One of the worst affected areas by the quake was
Here is the first paragraph of an article in the Independent:

Earthquake-battered Beichuan suffered its final indignity yesterday as torrents of muddy water bore down on the ruins of the town. The living have left, but the gushing waters took with them the corpses buried in the rubble; the life savings of the residents who were forced to leave; and official documents, books, letters and photographs that make up a person's memories.

John Carey pointed out that whereas John Keats and Percy Shelley were pre-Darwinian and pre-Freudian poets. Seamus Heaney is one of the most significant post-Freudian and post-Darwinian poets. Whereas in Keats's and Shelley's time, the truth was to be found in looking up to the sky, at skylarks and nightingales. Human thought at that time saw salvation and mystery in the heavens.

But most of Seamus Heaney's work delves into the muck beneath his feet. He writes about stuff that is to him, very commonplace, but to most people digging, butter-churning, and slaughtering animals with bare-hands, are symbols of a bygone and more honest existence.

Heaney explores the miracle of how we all came from the muck, and vividly touches on how destiny might be to get submerged in the muck of ones one making.

Which might also explain why there is some pathology behind my fondness for swimming in dirty rivers.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I only realised in the middle of class the other night that it's National Children's Day. During the break I ran across to the shop to buy pop and sweets with which to play party games (for 17 year-olds) with the remainder of the lesson (and to preserve my lesson plan).

Last year, Children's Day fell shortly after the Principal of my School died. The behaviour of some Students that night led me to believe that I would never be able to control a class, and some classes would never be controlled.

The other night, as always, I was anxious and fired-up in the build up to lessons. Then, just before going into the classroom, one of the more advanced and confident Students asked me onto the balcony of my office to say, in halting English, that her and her classmates were very sad that I would be leaving soon.

It's particularly gratifying in China to be liked and wanted for who are and what you've done, rather than what you represent to people. So on that sentiment, I'll sign off with the ever tangential WB Yeats:

When You Are Old

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


tear them at the seams,
when a river becomes a thousand streams

It's unusual to meet a young Chinese person who doesn't dream of travelling abroad. Many of them have very vivid ideas of where they want to go. Last night, I went to my colleagues house to join her family for a meal (my first taste of homecooking here in Longchuan, and so far the only meal I've finished). The young members of the family all knew which country they wanted to go to, and I had to break the news to them that the world outside of China has more than one language (I subsequently taught bonjour, ola and Guten Tag).

On the way home, I stopped in an Internet Bar. I quickly get bored of polite company, and find that cretins shouting "hello" and kids watching you type as if its a spectator sport is a small price to pay for the authenticity of Internet Bars. I simultaneously held several conversations on the Chinese-language equivalent of MSN: QQ.

In one of the conversations, I faced the eventuality of telling a 20 year-old Student that I couldn't become her boyfriend, and although it was very brave of her to ask, it would be a bad idea from her point of view.

The contrast between people who yell across the street at foreigners, or treat us as objects with which to impress their friends, and those who have the courage and dignity to interact with us is always unmistakeable.

I asked her why she was so enamoured with somebody she barely knew just because I'm foreign. She said (implied) that her dream was to travel abroad, and unable to actively use English to interact, she could never make that come true unless she found a foreigner to do it for her.

I teach at two Middle-Schools, where most of the Students are between 16 and 20 and the Schools are on either side of the proverbial tracks. The girl in question is fro the wrong side. It seems to be a Universal problem, convincing people that go to lesser institutions that they're not stupid, and they- fuelled by the kind of self-reliance and self-belief that they don't teach at school - can contribute as much of value to the world as anybody else.

Last week, I spent a horrible four days in Hong Kong whilst trying to renew my Visa. During the day, the only helpful strangers I met were the Indian guys who sell things on the Street. They stand there, from early in the morning, until late at night, regardless of the weather, never letting their standard of courtesy slip.

The human touch can often be missing when interacting with people in China, and it can be found where you least expect it.

This post doesn't really have a point. It's just that I'm building up a hearty admiration for one type of person - those who take their ambitions into their own hands and don't let reasons become excuses. And a distaste for another - those cold and timid souls who can only greet strangers from across the street.

That might be a very trite way to conclude, but if it's true then it's only half a cliche

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

After queuing for an hour at Huizhou train station on Monday, the only available seats in the waiting area were next to a chain-smoker or a screaming child, so I sat down two seats away from a woman in her early forties who looked lower-middle class. The seat was falling apart so she lifted her bag and let me sit next to her.

She saw me glancing at a flier that was lying on the seat and asked me if I could read Chinese. We proceeded to talk for another 45 minutes about the usual subjects: cultural differences, exchange rates and how the Chinese are perceived abroad. Other questions were conspicuous by their absence: how much money do you earn in a month? Do you have a girlfriend? How much do you weigh?

When we got up to walk to the platform I noticed a logo on her bag. It was for a well-known company whose name begins with Am and ends in Way.
After asking a kid to stand up so that we could sit together on the train, we chatted for another couple of hours. And then she asked me about money, and invited me back to Huizhou to look at her office, and offered to introduce me to her daughter.

She was definitely the sort of person I would like to keep contact with, but there's always a limit to how much of a rapport one can form with somebody when the desire (or the need) to sell them something, stands in the way.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dancing About Architecture

I tend to agree with Frank Zappa, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. They are two disparate forms that should respect each others' privacy.

But I've been without it for over a week now (apart from my own guitar-playing of course), and daydreaming about it is starting to prove inadequate. In the last couple of months in Huizhou, at some point of every working day, I listened to Debussy, particularly a piano and violin piece that I didn't bother to learn the name of.

But without anyway to play my CD collection I will go mad soon, or at best, just lose all focus.

I don't know of anybody who put it better than Abba "without a song or a dance what are we" and I'm not into dancing which makes it doubly important.


This is another paragraph from Llosa's The Way to Paradise that I had to get down before it was lost:

What could one expect of poets, even if they were workers, too? They were simply monsters of egotism, blind and deaf to the fortunes of their fellows, narcissists mesmerised by the sufferings they invented only in order to immortalise them in verse.

Last night, when I couldn't sleep, I lay up, as well as reading a couple of chapters of that novel, I practised my guitar (with a view to finally adding to those Youtube videos), made an entry into my Chinese-language diary, made another abortive attempt at creative writing, but all can be described as an attempt to invent emotions only in order to immortalise them.

By the way, if you read this Betty. I can't reply to your comment because I can't see my own or your blog. If you drop me an e-mail at or add another comment with your own e-mail address, then we can have some guanxi.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Joining the Dots

It's a year to the day now that I started working in China. I won't go into tales of nostalgia, reflection, or soliloquies on all the things I know now that I didn't know then.

But, shamefully, since coming to China, I have done nothing to update my website, and made no sustained attempt to continue my writing career (unless learning Chinese can be counted).

But, when I am at home (very briefly) in August and before then (if I have time) I can start a blog in Chinese and attach it directly to the website. Maybe even start up a Chinese-language version of the website. That's not to say my musings on Chinese history and traditional culture and what remains of both can provide natives with any insight they haven't heard before, (let alone the lives of the ordinary people here) but big things have small beginnings, and I have to get out of this habit of not writing creatively fast. It will also strengthen my eventual application for a PhD in Creative Writing, if I can claim to have learnt a foreign language to the point of being intelligently playful with it.

I'm posting this publicly in order to put pressure on myself to see it through.

Otherwise, my daily life is (almost literally) a world apart from what it was two weeks ago. There are no bars, no shops that sell anything other than daily necessities, no other foreigner, only one Chinese person (apart from the Students) who is conversant in English, and certainly no Western food.

Also, the first two nights my bed didn't have a mattress, and my room didn't have any mosquito protection so I went almost completely without sleep. And after a year, I'm only starting to get an uncensored glimpse of the breathtaking inefficiency and the cut and paste approach to professionalism that many foreigners associate with China.

Teaching all of these new students has been tough so far, but it is slowly getting better. And despite the peculiarity of the local accent, the language barrier is smaller than I had expected, and the people I see every day really respect my preference for being openly approached instead of shouted at from a distance.

I'll leave you with this, paraphrased from Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Way to Paradise":

(Paul Gaugin) agreed with his grandmother that one's birthplace was an accident of fate and finding the place in the world where one belongs is the adventure and a journey that make life worth livng.

Well I have days in China, and especially here in Longchuan when I feel very far from home, but knowing these people and learning this language is giving me reason to persist, and I've barely started to learn the things in the Chinese language that I most wish to know.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Towards Strangers

A lot of people live their lives by Blanche Dubois's parting words
"Thankyou, whoever you are. I've always depended on the kindness of strangers."

I myself put that into practise when I was in America almost three years ago. Back then, I wasn't in a position of power. Some people (albeit a minority) dealt with me in ways that lacked humility, grace and generosity, and I never once thought that I might become such a person.

Earlier this week, after arriving in Shenzhen bus-station, and being one of the few people there who knew where I was going and how to get there, I didn't want to be accosted or (even temporarily) impeded.

There are guys in most of these big stations who don't wear uniforms or carry ID but seek to assist members of the public by carrying their luggage and leading them to the bus they want to get to.

Just after arriving in Shenzhen I was approached by such a person who, before I passed him started saying "sir sir bus bus." I responded in Chinese "我不要坐车" (I don't want to take a bus) which isn't in the slightest bit impolite. But after this bear of a man persisted in his soft, effeminate voice I ended up saying the same thing louder and quickening my pace. When I turned around to look at him, he had a shocked look of hurt and rejection but I had to speed away to avoid the big crush.

A week before that, I had an experience that anybody of non-Asian appearance who's been to Mainland China will be familiar with. On my own, walking from somewhere to somewhere late at night, I walk past a group of young guys, I look at them, they look at me, and as we're about to pass each others' line of vision the "helloooo" comes, no less spine-tingling for its inevitability. Of course, I don't want to do the parrot thing and make the peanut-brain who said it look big in front of his friends so I turn my head away and walk past, he then starts to mutter about me so I, in a charged but not necessarily antagonistic mood stop, turn around and say "你是什么东西?" which translates as 'what thing are you'? but its connotations are much worse. His friends started laughing at him, but when nobody came forth to confront me I turned around and walked to the pub.

Although I don't know their names, and never expect to see either of my recent victims again, I have (I think) made up for both incidents in other ways. But still, there are more important things to be than a polite stranger.

PS. If you're wondering why having a stranger say 'hello' to you might be construed as mockery or psychological warfare then come to China, or other particular places in the far-East.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Back to Blogging

I've been in China for almost a year now and as with anywhere, there are interesting things, desirable things, irritating things and mysterious things, but the past year has mostly been unbloggable.

This might well change very soon though. I'm going (for three months) to work in a Middle School on the outskirts of Heyuan, a 2h30min train ride to the North.

There, the experience of Chinese culture will be far closer to grassroots level for several reasons:

1. It's a boarding school and I'll be living on campus.
2. I have reason to believe that I'll be the only foreigner living in the district.
3. It's a public school so I won't exclusively be teaching rich kids
4. There isn't a line of protection between me and the real opinions of the kids/parents, and nights out with the parents will be part of the deal.
5. The places I go for brief sanctuary (mainly Hong Kong) will be too far away for brief visits.

They are also reasons why I might be more compelled to blog over the coming months

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some things I didn't know about writing when I was monolingual

That's not to say that I can assert that I 'speak Chinese' or that I can walk into a Chinese bookshop with any justifiable confidence, but I've already learnt a lot about our own language and what it is to be literate:

1. You can never fully grasp the implications of your use of language
As with any language, Chinese has different ways of saying the same things, but how and why the different ways evolved are always mysterious. If you think 'must, have to, got to, gotta, need to' have the same meaning - look closer.

2. Less is more
Any fool can talk at length, it takes skill to put a point across concisely, eg. to somebody who is new to the language you are speaking.

3.Language doesn't sit still
Mandarin was imposed very recently, it was meant to be unifying and accessible to all the people's of China, but the regional (and seemingly generational) variety in syntax, pronunciation and use of grammar makes me want to curl up in a ball when thinking about reaching fluency.

4. Language is a master, not a servant
Learning a language (including your own) is a process in which there are few controllables. Go with it, be playful, be played with: surrender.

5. Language acquisition is worth doing for its own sake
When I say for its own sake, I mean to say that different uses and justifications for taking the time and effort, emerge along the way. As a writer, your own language becomes more understandable and more mysterious.

6. You're always part of something bigger than yourself
In attempting to make your name as a writer, it helps to have a particular self-importance. You must have the conviction that the contents of your head are interesting, but you're only tool to express the contents of your head is language. The language was there long before you and will be there long after you. And your individual contribution can only ever be a fraction of why its great.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Why I Don't Write

In 'Six Memos for the Next Millenium,' Italo Calvino articulates a lot of the reasons why I haven't felt like writing creatively (not in English anyway) or creatively in the past (at least) half year:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if pets and writers set themselves tasks that noone else dares imagine wil literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various "codes" into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

With teaching, working with kids, and living in a foreign country, it's difficult to achieve a breadth of vision (especially in working with kids), and to liberate the imagination, what with all the daily annoyances: parents who spoil their kids, frequent cat-calls on the street, a mind-bogglingly unnecessary amount of noise, this seems like a time to live intensely and will hopefully precede a period of writing intensively.

This quote from Raymond Queneau provides an excellent excuse for not wanting to blog recently:

Another very wrong idea that is also doing the rounds at the moment is the equivalence that has been established between inspiration, exploration of the subconscious and liberation, between chance automtism and freedom. Now this sort of inspiration, which consists in blindly obeying every impulse, is in fact slavery. The classical author who wrote his tragedy observing a certain number of known rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes to his head and is slave to other rules of which he knows nothing.