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.