Sunday, January 25, 2009


Have a look at this, it's all worth watching but the bit beginning on 6:00 is especially powerful.

Chinese has a word 标准 biaozhun meaning "standard." Beijing people have the most standard Mandarin. To be good at karaoke your singing must be standard (meaning as close to the original as possible.) People in Guangdong and Xinjiang prefer to converse in their local dialects, therefore their Mandarin isn't very standard.

In spite of being a frequent target of the pronunciation police, I think Mandarin is a quickly evolving language that's full of poetry. I've been doing a lot more creative writing in Mandarin recently than in English.

And when I think of the kinds of people mentioned in the video, I wonder why I've been so keen to work in Higher Education in Britain. The discipline and self-motivation of the Students at this University, and the fact that many of them to pursue other subjects simply for the love of learning, despite the enormous exam pressure. This is in marked contrast to my experiences at University.

One of the biggest misconceptions about TEFL teaching in China is that it's a way of escaping working for the man. Yes, there are fairy-tale elements to it: contracts are short; there is no obligation to be a respectable member of the community (attempting to become one is a waste of time); you probably have more freetime than a school teacher in the English-speaking country of your origin, but you are working for an Industry.

The existence of this Industry, English teaching in China, has made it a subconscious, subrational response among the ordinary Chinese to say "hello" when they see a Caucasian or a black person. As well as its dedicated professionals, this Industry has its share of chancers and unscrupulous people. Being able to afford a foreign teacher is a bit like being able to afford a star in the old Hollywood studio system. Your selling-power depends on it.

The thing I've learnt to respect the most after working in this industry for 18 months is defiance of cliche. Most of my Students have memorised their English in blocks. After class, almost all of them choose to converse with me in Chinese, because their English is a functioning machine rather than a means of self-expression.

To help them get to the next stage, it's important to remind them that the Chinese for the verb "to master" is 学好 or 学会 study well, or study to the point of being able to. This knowledge is not something that you can buy like a car, a language is like a muddy stream, so just strip and jump in.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not Giving a Fuck

My French teacher at St. Ambrose, Mr.Toal once accused me of not caring. I denied it instinctively.

On one of his seemingly spontaneous, but actually very loaded mid-lesson musings, he reflected that part of the shape of life was to start work, realise how tough the real world is, and think "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

Since leaving St Ambrose at the earliest legal opportunity in 2000:

I had a part-time job during my A-Levels working in a noisy, sweaty hotel kitchen as the lowest member of the staff food-chain but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

I have had a summer job working in a bleach factory where health and safety standards were Dickensian, and one had to slide along the floor instead of walk for fear of slipping but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

I have been riding a scooter on a rainy afternoon and been tossed onto the roof of a car whose driver pulled out in front simply because he was bigger than me but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

I have worked as a door-to-door salesman and been turned away at first glance from homes where I could here the laughter coming from the paddling pool, and smell the freshly barbecued meat, but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

I have come to China and lived as the ultimate ethnic minority. I have learnt Chinese and heard first hand accounts of life during the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad"

I could go on, with a student-house that was the ultimate cultural wasteland, being out of love by text-message, staying in a bullet-proof windowed motel in Chicago, spending the night in Hong Kong without a hotel room, losing over a thousand pounds on an e-bay fraud, but I have never thought "St Ambrose isn't so bad."

During my last two months at the school, one Student stuck his head out of the upstairs window of the bus and yelled "Mr Haworth's gay." Mr Haworth gave a fuck. This was during the last stretch of preparation for our GCSEs, which we all gave a fuck about. The importance of our final lessons did not stop the Headmaster of the school from pulling boys out of their lessons to fill out incident forms, face interrogation, and help discover the identity of the boy who had shouted "Mr Haworth's gay."

As an aside, Mr Haworth had recently established himself as an adulterer and a homewrecker. But still, we were expected to give a fuck about finding the culprit.

I believe that people who tell children that school days are the best days of their lives are bullies.

I believe that schools redirect kids' talent and enthusiasm towards things that very few will find worth giving a fuck about.

I believe that its lack of 'real world'ness was the very thing that made St Ambrose a miserable place for many Students who went there in my time.

I believe that there are imposters, bullies, and incompetents in every profession, but school is the only time when we're required to respect them.

The reason I am not a forceful teacher is not because I like the Students. They, and I, are just pawns in a vast, indifferent system. But because I explain to them that ultimately, this is their deal. I can help them to memorise pieces of literature, but only when they've experienced the emotions involved will they understand them. I can give them topics to discuss in class but only when those issues have touched their lives will they know what they think of them. No Student should ever thank me for how much they have learnt, they should thank themselves.

Since leaving St Ambrose, I have found things that I do give a fuck about: Mandarin, creative writing, classical guitar, and (most recently) karaoke. But I can only reach my full potential at those things when I shed inhibitions, realise and accept limitations, and cease to give a fuck about those things.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The seventh resolution

Read more literature and less literary criticism

That most lyrical of boatsmen, Mark Twain, once wrote:

Now when I had mastered the language of this water, and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river.

In River Town Peter Hessler explains why he came to China aged 26, instead of starting a career:

At Princeton I had majored in English, and after graduation I had spent two years studying English language and literature at Oxford. My original plan had been to become a Professor of Literature, but over time I became less enamored of what I saw in English departments, especially in America. Part of it was simply aesthetics - I found that I couldn't read literary criticism, because its academic stiffness was so far removed from the grace of good writing. And I could make very little sense of most criticism, which seemed a hopeless mess of awkward words: Deconstructionalism, Post-modernism, New Historicism...And I resented the way that English departments constantly tinkered with the canon, hoping to create a book list as multicultural as the fake photographs they put on the covers of their undergraduate brochures.

In The History Boys Richard Griffiths tells the Students to familiarise themselves with the poems now. Of course they hadn't lived through the things that the poems were about: love, war, misery, heartbreak. But someday they would, and some of the poems would make sense.

There is a time to analyse literature and a time to live it.

When I am in the park studying, strangers often come to see what the Laowai is reading. There are well over 100 Chinese poems that if you say the first line, even a working-class person will be able to finish it for you. The same goes for songs. These poems are about love, nostalgia, homesickness, death, things that can't be learnt in a classroom, but life teaches them the meaning of the poems. Despite the popularity of television, the poverty of the countryside, and the noise of the cities. They have the ability to hear the rhythm of a poem that all of the well-educated Westerners I know have lost.

Hessler later writes about an epiphany when a piece of Shakespeare that he had formally studied 10 years before made sense for the first time in the silence of a Fuling classroom:

You couldn't have said something like that at Oxford. You couldn't simply say: I don't like Hamlet because I think he's too conservative and sensitive and selfish. Everything had to be more clever than that; you had to recognize Hamlet as a character in a text, and then you had to dismantle it accordingly, layer by layer, not just the play itself but everything that had been written about it. You had to consider what all the other critics had said, and the accumulated weight of their knowledge and nonsense sat heavily on the play. You had to think about how the play tied in with current events and trends. This process had some value, of course, but for many readers it seemed to have reached the point where there wasn't even a split-second break before the sophistication started. As a student, that was all I had wanted - a brief moment when a simple and true thought flashed across the mind: I don't like this character. This is a good story. The woman in this poem is beautiful and I bet her fingers are slim like scallions.

I taught the song "Turn Turn Turn" just before Christmas. There's a time to read, a time to write; a time to think, a time to live; a time to criticise, a time to surrender.