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 http://www.youtube.com/kmcgeary

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.