Monthly Archives: August 2010

Special

I finished the final summer camp a week ago and went back to my other job. I only have six weeks until I leave Beijing, so I can’t afford to take time off.

I’m working 37 hours this week, with no days off. It’s not so bad but it’s all the waiting and preparation time between classes that really adds up. Yesterday, I taught seven hours of classes but, with breaks and commuting, it was a thirteen hour day.

A student drew the picture of me above for the school magazine. I don’t know how to respond. It’s special.

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Summer Camp Swag

Yesterday was the final day of camp four. That’s 192 teaching hours. I have one more camp to go.

I was given a pile of swag that the students receive when they arrive – a pin badge, stickers, notebooks, magazines, a flask, wash bag, etc. I’d seen most of this stuff before, but it was interesting to take a closer look.

One complaint that I’ve heard from a few foreign teachers is that we are almost totally airbrushed out of existence in the camp’s promotional materials. The Chinese teachers are treated like stars, with full-page pictures, biographies and endless group photos printed in the magazine. Some of them start to believe the hype and behave like mini-celebs. On the other hand, foreign teachers barely appear in any written materials and are mostly absent from the camp video that is produced each week and shown at the end of camp party. The picture above, about an inch tall, is the only image of me, and one of the few of any foreign teacher in the camp magazine.

I’ll be honest, I don’t want my photograph published. Not at all. But it would be nice to feel that you were considered important enough to appear alongside the Chinese staff.

As well as full-page bios of the Chinese teachers, the notebook  includes some suggested reading – quotations from various texts. Most are typical ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’, never give up, always be true to yourself platitudes. But one stood out as a particularly bizarre choice for 12-14 year olds. I found the full text on the internet, and you can see part of it in the picture above.

If there’s one thing that Chinese teenagers don’t need more of, it’s this kind of extreme nationalist, black and white, us versus them, victim complex nonsense. They get more than enough of it on the internet, in the media, at home and at school. At the camp, which is billed as being a place where students can learn to appreciate foreign cultures, this kind of rabble rousing stupidity seems totally out-of-place.

Apparently, the poem was written by a university student under the pen name ‘A Silent, Silent Chinese’ and became a viral internet hit. It illustrates the patterns of thinking that make it so hard to speak to some (but, by no means, all) Chinese people about the types of issues that it raises.

First is the us and them attitude. An attitude which joins together all 1.3 billion Chinese people into a united family that, while possibly disagreeing about some issues, is more-or-less united, harmonious and able to speak with one voice. And places them in opposition with everyone else – the rest of humanity – who should be treated with at best, suspicion, and at worst, contempt. Of course, not everyone thinks like this – but it’s the kind of mindset that the poem promotes.

Another problem with the poem and it’s worldview is the way it won’t leave the past behind. I remember speaking to an intelligent university student who asked me what I thought about the execution of a British man who was convicted of drug smuggling in China. I said I disagree with the death penalty in all circumstances. He told me that he believed the man should have been executed because the British had trafficked opium into China. But that ended over a century ago! The past can never be left in the past in this kind of mindset.

I’d say the poem’s inclusion is not dissimilar to a British language school including a BNP tract in its recommended reading list. And it adds to the hard-to-shake-off feeling that foreign teachers, and non-Chinese people in general, are in some way looked down upon or treated with suspicion at these camps.

On a lighter note, a student gave me a toy Uzi 9mm made of wood:

Five Hour Meal

One of the teaching assistants last week (not the irresponsible one) asked if I wanted to get something to eat tonight. Seeing as I’ve spent more time recently speaking to the rabbit than any one human being, I agreed to be sociable and meet her.

We went to a restaurant near my home. The first hour was good, the second was OK, by the third I was more than ready to leave, by the fourth I was considering stabbing one of my eyes out just to get out of there, and by the fifth I was on the verge of a total mental breakdown. She took five hours to eat some chicken and a fruit salad.

I must sound very intolerant. Afterall, it’s not unheard of to spend a whole evening in a restaurant. But she spent at least half  that time telling me in great detail about her pet subject – the differences between British and American English. The first time I met her, she asked ‘Do I sound British?’ I didn’t know what answer she wanted to hear, so I played it safe and said ‘You speak very clearly. You don’t sound too British or too American.’ This was the wrong answer.

Even after I had lost the will to live, even after I had started to become increasingly sweary and dismissive, even after I interrupted her mid-sentence to shout for the bill, even after I had told her that I didn’t care, she refused to finish picking at her rice and telling me about the different ways to say ‘tomato’. She asked again and again ‘Do I sound British?’, ‘How can I sound more British?’, ‘Would people think I was born in Britain?’

Of course, the whole notion of ‘British English’ means little more than putting a ‘u’ in the word ‘colour’. The differences in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary between, for example, the Queen and a typical Scot (such as my mother) screeching ‘Aye, laddy, where’s me fecking bastard heroin?’, renders the idea of  ‘British English’ meaningless. But that didn’t stop her talking about it for the most painfully long time, and returning to the subject at every opportunity.

In the end, after paying the bill some half an hour earlier and after seeing even the most unsubtle of hints go unnoticed, I just stood up while she was still eating, said it was time to go and frog-marched her to the subway station. It’ll be a long time before I accept another dinner invitation, that’s for sure.

EDIT: After cooling down a little, I re-wrote this post to remove most of the swearing and to slightly tone down the obnoxiousness.