May 23, 2009


Filed under: China,language — Kim @ 5:45 pm

This was one of the recent entries sent into the Torygraph’s collection of “Jolly Amusing Foreigners’ English”.


And it is quite funny and fairly typical of English signs in China. But what it reminded me of is the great onomatopeia of the Chinese word “peng” (the pinyin for the Chinese sign is “xiao xin peng tou”) which is rendered here into English as “knock” and which sounds like “Pung!”…which is a pretty good word for the sound that rings inside your ears as you bang your head. Or resonant of the sound made if your head comes into contact with anything capable of resonance.

But actually, this one is nicer…


May 10, 2009

Being a Tutor

Filed under: culture,language,teaching — Kim @ 3:46 pm

My new job title is “EAP Tutor” and because the term is used consistently throughout university documents, I am reminded of this honour on a daily basis. I have never been a “tutor” before and I quite like the quaintness of my new title. But also, for some reason I am unable to explain, I kind of prefer the American pronunciation [‘tu:tər], and will occasionally use it if asked what my job is.

In one lesson I asked my students to read out this little limerick in US then UK accents…

A tutor who tutored the flute
Tried to tutor two tooters to toot;
Said the two to the tutor
“Is it harder to toot or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”

which only works properly in an American accent.

But also, as with so many things these days, I only had an imperfect recall of this limerick and so was forced to google it. It came up in a document called “UNITED STATES ARMY SERGEANTS MAJOR ACADEMY. PROTOCOL AND ETIQUETTE HANDBOOK”. This turned out to be a most amusing document, crammed with incredibly detailed advice and couched in a ludicrously pompous style. To wit:

Practiced in certain messes, is the tradition of chiding or poking good natured fun at fellow members of the mess through limericks and ditties. This is a form of self-generated entertainment during the dinner hour, and serves to enhance camaraderie and unit/section esprit, while remembering the formality of the occasion. The procedure normally followed is for the member who wishes to propose a limerick, to first secure permission from Mr. Vice, then present his limerick. If the limerick’s humor is not readily apparent to all members and guests of the mess, a brief explanation, to all present (but not to divulge the humor in the wit.) so that they may share. A group or person, upon receiving a limerick, is bound by honor to refute the remark prior to the close of the dinner hour, lest all present believe the remark to be true…Remember, a limerick should be witty to all, elicit a response from the “victim”, be fun, in good taste, and not cause undue embarrassment.

A far cry from “Full Metal Jacket” then. I wonder if any US Sergeant has ever plowed thru this turgid tome and taken on the mindset invoked in its solemn tones.

Well, what better way to end than with a couple of my favourite ribald limericks that would surely prove suitable for a gathering of Civilian Tutors around the table of a hostelry of an evening? To woo:

From the depths of the crypt at St Giles
Came a scream that resounded for miles.
Said the vicar, ‘Good gracious!
Has Father Ignatius
Forgotten the bishop has piles?’

As the poets have mournfully sung,
Death takes the innocent young,
The rolling-in-money,
The screamingly-funny,
And those who are very well hung.

February 1, 2009

Hate mail

Filed under: blogs,China,culture,language — Kim @ 8:31 pm

As all you Sinoblogoholics know full well, Mr Peking Duck is a great source for linking us up with good stories and he recently hooked me up with a funny post over at Brendan O’Kane’s kickass bokane blog a dog dog space.

The Quackmeister sold me the piece by averring that Mr O’ Kane takes a recent NYT article about the Chinese hip-hop scene (by Jimmy Wang) and then proceeds to “tear it apart, syllable by syllable. Quite hilarious. Totally merciless.

And when I read it, it did indeed seem that was what Mr Bokane had done…but but but but, not so fast!! Comments are what make blogs really hip and hop, and the many comments left on this post (48 and counting) were good, and educating, reading.

Comment 22 comes from a real life C-town hippyhopper himself, a certain Mr Andreas Yi Jun Hwang, who chipped in with his two cents worth and is a man who clearly has got his game together. Mr AYJ was closely followed (comment 32) by an incredibly well-informed and pleasantly civil and eloquent American academic called Angela Steele, who just happens to have her own blog about the Chinese hip-hop scene. These two comments, especially Angela Steele’s, made me pretty much change my mind about bokane’s beef with Jimmy and actually made Mr B K seem like he weren’t all that.

But also, and hence the title of this here post, there was some choice abuse of Brendan by some vexed members of the Chinese hip-hop community.

In comment 30, the charming Tracy Wu doesn’t mince her words when informing Mr B (and men of his kidney) just what she thinks of him/them…

Tracy Wu wrote:

To Brendan,

You are nothing but a common hater posing as a knowledgeable academic. And I notice that a lot of these heads who have linked to you are fellow academic haters who enjoy reading you flame other people, but they’re mostly just haters too! A network of haters who pat each other on the back and beat each other off to the sound of their own postings.

You stink! And you haven’t done anything for the hip-hop community in China. Get a life.

Clearly here is a shorty well-schooled in the hip-hop tradition of “battling”. I wouldn’t care to cross wits with her over the mic. Anyway, I thought she was on the right side of rude, and quite funny. But I thought Mr XINT (comment 27) went a bit too far…

XINT wrote:


I got forwarded your blog post from a friend.
You know jack shit about hip-hop.

You know jack shit about rap in china.

I am a hip-hop MC in Shanghai, and I just want you to know i’m sick of nerds like you who study chinese and think they’re hot shit. I don’t know you, but I can tell from your pitiful blog the type of person you are.

I’m sick of white dudes like you who have asian fetish coming to china, boning girls, thinking you’re hot shit, when you can’t even get girls back home fromwhatever shithole you crawled out of. China boosts up your ego; you have western worshipping chinese peasant girls suck your dick and it makes you think you’re king. you ain’t no king; you’re slime. You’re lower than low. You’re fucking pathetic. You’re a “grade A loser,” as they say. All you’ve got to do with your time is write your jealousy filled, hater posts about contradicting someone who has done better than you. I hope you get AIDS from one of the hookers you’ve been banging, you cocksucking CIA spy motherfucker.

And were I Mr O’ Kane I might be tempted to respond with something along the lines of “Well someone’s got to keep your sister out of the rice fields.” (Geddit?)

But actually, this hate mail doesn’t ring true. The English is too good. If you’ll allow me to indulge in a little Forensic Linguistics then let me opine that details such as the use of a semi-colon (you ain’t no king; you’re slime) plus the fact that there are no apostrophe errors, topped off by the quaint expression “as they say”, would seem to suggest that the guy who wrote that was probably a tenured American academic with too much time on his (her?) hands. Or, more likely, one of Brendan’s university chums winding him up. What else would better explain the shrill climactic hyperbole of “you cocksucking CIA spy motherfucker“?

Unless the guy is a lunatic obviously.

So, Brendan…do you know who wrote it? Can you Renrou this ass? I’d like to have my hunch scratched.

November 27, 2008

Chewing the fat with Peter Hessler

Filed under: China,east-west,language,teaching — Kim @ 4:53 pm

Just to state the bleedin’ obvious from the outset, part of the process of getting to know a place is talking to the locals. When you’re a tourist it’s fairly easy and forgivable to whizz through the sights, scoff some of the cuisine, buy some souvenirs, and then piss off out without exchanging more than a few service-oriented verbal transactions. But when you actually live somewhere you’d have to be a real retard/recluse not to have at least a few conversations with the natives.

And conversations are of course invaluable for finding out about a place and for getting insights into the hearts and minds of the people who live there:for getting at the nub of the national psyche, if such a thing there be. Often, the most interesting parts of travel books are the transcribed conversations – or the approximations of them – and it seems to me that a travel writer’s skill at conducting and then vividly and pertinently rendering conversations (as opposed to interviews) is probably the key skill of the genre. After all, a journalist can go out and interview and observe, a historian can do research, and economists and social scientists can ply their trade with facts and figures…but travel writers have got to go and “meet the people”. And they have to have the conversational skills to draw people out, and they have to know how to listen carefully and how to ask the right questions. And they have to have patience and curiosity and respect…and then they have to have time. Good conversations take time, and to get to know a nation you need to talk to a fair few of its inhabitants.

So one of the reasons why Peter Hessler is my favourite travel writer on China is because this is something he does so well. River Town and Oracle Bones are full of insights gained from simply knowing how to talk to people, and a lot of the laughs and a lot of the liveliness in his books come from the way Hessler writes up his chats with Chinese. Oh, and the fact that he speaks excellent Chinese also helps of course!

He is also perceptive when it comes to the nature and structure of conversations. In the following extract he alerts us to how both the flow and the content of a conversation can tell us something not just about individuals but, to an extent, nations.

foreigners always talked about how difficult it was to understand China, and often this was true, but there were also many ways in which the people’s ideas were remarkably uniform and predictable. There were buttons you could push – Hitler, Jews, the Japanese, the Opium wars, Tibetans, Taiwan – and 90 percent of the time you could predict the precise reaction, including specific phrases people would use.

This rings true with my experiences too, although I’d put the percentage much lower:at about 40-50%. Compared to Westerners, Chinese (and Thais and Japanese) tend to be rather conformist in their opinions and certainly any topic concerning nationalism or politics is likely to elicit some stock responses. As an English teacher, some of my work hours involve “conversation” with adults in small groups or one-on-one. It’s not quite the real McCoy, I know, but still a lot of the time I am basically being paid to chat, while occasionally correcting errors or helping with vocabulary. In fact, some of my classes are grandly and vainly titled “Salon” classes (“A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess or host, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings” …from wiki) and during a recent “Salon” class on the topic of “famous people”, Mao came up like a bad penny. Sure enough 3 out of the 7 people in my class who chose to talk about Mao said what a great man he was and used exactly the same phrase; how Mao had “led China out of the darkness”. Naturally I pointed out this this was complete horseshit and that not only had the Maonster made a pig’s ear of ruling China, he had actually set back China’s development by decades while causing a huge and unforgivable amount of unnecessary human suffering, more specifically Chinese suffering, in the process. Ha! Not really…I just nodded and corrected a collocational anomaly.

And Hessler also has some good comments on the potential import of cross-cultural conversations. Take the following for example when he bumps into a railway mechanic in Yan’an…

The mechanic and I talked for a while and then as a polite way to show that the conversation was ending, he said solemnly, “Our two countries have taken different roads. But now we are friends.”

“Yes” I said, “We can forget about the problems of the past.” Many of my random discussions in small places like Fuling and Yan’an ended like that; the people seemed to feel a need to summarize the relations between China and America, as if this had a great bearing on conversations at hand. Often it was the first time they had spoken with an American, which made our interaction seem like a momentous occasion. I liked that aspect of spending time in remote parts of China…every casual conversation was a major diplomatic event.

And the reason I like this little passage so much is that it brings into focus very nicely an issue that is always on the sidelines and occasionally pushed to the forefront of my expat life. The fact is that as expats our comments and conversations with Chinese have a resonance that can raise even the most banal discourse to a more significant level. Whether we like it or not, many Chinese feel that we are representatives of our nation and they will judge our home countries in part by the kind of conversation they get from us. It’s a bit daft on some level, I agree, but on further reflection almost all of us do this much more than we should. It’s hard to keep reminding oneself that all countries are a mix of people, and so instead of saying to ourselves “this is a silly comment” or “this is a rude person” we tend to think “that was a typically stupid Chinese/Japanese/British comment” or “Chinese/Americans/Russians are so rude”. I wish people could get away from such silliness, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

There is also of course a basic human decency in being polite to people and respecting their points of view or taking their questions seriously, but as a teacher and as an Englishman abroad, I do sometimes feel a kind of a “diplomatic” responsibility to tolerate silly or uninformed questions and to not hurt people’s feelings by attacking opinions I disagree with too forcefully…hence I bit my tongue when my students praised Mao. (Also, I have to atone for the Opium Wars of course.)

When the acclaimed writer Aldous Huxley reflected on his lifetime’s strivings to understand the human race he came out with the following “It is a little embarrassing that, after 45 years of research and study, the best advice I can give to people is to be a little kinder to each other.” Well, a lot of life is made up of small talk with people we don’t care much about, but our conversations can be small acts of kindness too, and as we all know, one of those is never wasted.

September 29, 2008

Who “exactly” are we English teachers?

Filed under: blogs,China,language,teaching — Kim @ 12:45 pm

To kick off, here’s a nicely provocative comment from a Chinese lady on the Dalian Xpat forum…

most of foreigners in china are rubbish(except those who are assigned to work here),they cant support themselves in their own countries and that is why most of them are english teachers (or other languages),coz they can do nothing but teaching their own languages. china is just like a dump(but i love it),so welcome those rubbish from different countries.

and this was followed by a comment from a Russian

Nice comment, I totally agree
(At least I’m not an English teacher)

Well, as I have written before, I am used to comments like this and I suppose there is some justification for them. There’s no smoke without fire, as the old adage has it, and some of the English “teachers” I have met over the years have been unqualified, psychotic, alcoholic, incompetent etc etc. But but but…the majority are normal, likable, interesting and decent people who are capable of teaching English very well. (Just like me! Shucks.)

It should also be said that some “English teaching” does verge on the pointless, particularly when teachers are stuck in, and then stuck with, a class of students who don’t want to be there and indeed often have no good reason to be there other than that the lessons are a parental or governmental requirement. I am lucky enough to be able to avoid teaching classes like these. I teach motivated university students, businesspeople, and adorable little kids.

I am an English teacher. It is my job and it is part of my identity. When people ask me what I do, I say I am an English teacher. I suppose I could, if I was feeling poncy, reply instead that “I teach literature and applied linguistics at a University” but that would be, well, poncy.

Anyways, a couple of weeks ago, via the wonderful haohao report, I came across an interesting article that both analysed and criticised that bally rotter the Chinabounder. In case you know him not, Chinabounder is (was) a young English teacher from the UK who wrote what became an infamous blog about his womanising in Shanghai. He then became the victim of a storm of indignation and media curiosity when a certain Dr Zhang, a university psychology lecturer, demanded he be hunted down and kicked out of China for humiliating and mistreating Chinese.

The article was from a site called The Middle Kingdom Life which has the subheading Perspectives on Living and Teaching in China. It is run by a few people but there is a Dr Greg (Gregory Mavrides, Ph.D.)who does most of the writing and moderating. In his own words… Dr. Mavrides is an American psychoanalyst who has been working in China as a professor and mental health consultant since August 2003.

I left a comment saying, more or less, that while Chinabounder is a prat he does have some insightful points to make about China and Chinese society. But that’s by the by, what I want to focus on is the Doc’s response and the point he made about English teachers in China. He said…

If Chinabounder’s situation was a relatively rare one, there wouldn’t have been any reason to write an article about it. In fact, he is a very common type of male foreign English teacher in China and I just used him as an example, as he decided to go public with his adventures.

I think the claim that the bounder is “a very common type” of English teacher is unfair and way off the mark and I commented back

I have been in Dalian for two years now and have hung out with an awful lot of, mostly male, English teachers and have never met anyone who sleeps with lots of Chinese women and brags about it. I have some colleagues who are young, male, and horny and in some cases absolutely smitten by Chinese femininity, yes, but they don’t sleep around and “break hearts”. They mostly joke about how all the beautiful girls are out of their league! Most of them are after a serious girlfriend…just like everywhere else! Anyway, I think you have an unfairly poor opinion of male English teachers in China, you even use “English teacher” in scare quotes…I do not think Bounder is representative of anything but a tiny tiny minority of English teachers. That’s my experience anyway.

To which the Doc replied

From the situation you describe in Dalian, it sounds like a very special, even unique, city in regard to foreign English teachers. We’ll have to investigate that for future editions of the guide.

This sounded distinctly sarcy to me so I tried to post this comment in response…

I must beg to differ. I am assuming your comment is not intended to slyly point out that I am wrong in my judgment of English teachers in Dalian and am taking it at face value. So, it seems to me extremely unlikely that Dalian is somehow unique…I mean, why should it be? Also, I have talked to English teachers who have worked in Ningbo, Shanghai, Jinan, Beijing, Changchun, Chongqing etc, and they all say that Dalian is very nice, but none of their stories suggest that the “English teaching community” is significantly different than the one here. Could I therefore suggest the point that it is not that Dalian is unique, it is that your opinion of English teachers is unfairly low? Cheers for now.

but the Doc censored it. That is, he wouldn’t allow the comment to stay on his site. More about why not later.

Anyway, this little to-and-fro then prompted another article by the Doc called What Exactly Is An English Teacher?. In this, Doc expanded on his previous comment

And, for the record, I have absolutely nothing against English teachers: they were certainly among my favorite in high school. It’s just that I don’t think it’s reasonable to refer to anyone who can speak English as an “English teacher” (even if they’re being paid as one in China), hence my use of quotation marks. I’m sorry that wasn’t clear to you.

and went on to talk about some of his experiences with “real” and “genuine” English teachers, who, in his opinion, are those who teach English as an academic subject rather than as a language.

This is one definition of “English teacher”, but there are quite clearly others and I found it amazing that the manager of a site purporting to help English teachers in China would be so blinkered and condescending. Accordingly, I attempted to post a reply stating my opinion about other definitions, but again the Doc wouldn’t allow it on his site.

Here it is for those of you interested…

Dear Dr,

Hello again. I came a bit late to this post, but to be honest I found it hard to believe what I was reading! As a manager of a website for English teachers in China, you do surely realise that “English teacher” has different meanings in different contexts? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you consider a “real” English teacher to be an English literature/grammar teacher, and a trained and qualified one of course, and probably a native speaker of English. I am inferring this from the following parts of your article;

two genuine English teachers
Because he is a real English teacher
I thought again about how loosely the term “English teacher” is thrown around in China

But this is just one type of English teacher and no more “real” (or “professionally authentic” perhaps) than me or any of my Chinese friends who teach English at Chinese schools or universities. If you ask my Chinese colleagues at Dalian University of Foreign Languages what they do, many of them will simply say that they are “English teachers”…although at University level they might mention a specific focus.

So, what about me? I am not qualified to teach English literature/grammar in England, but I have been an English teacher for 12 years now. I have a TEFL certificate (a month long starter course) and I have an MSc in Applied Linguistics. I am an English teacher: I teach English to people whose native language is not English. I have worked (teaching English) in Universities in Hungary, Japan, Thailand, England, Scotland and China. I have both taken and given teacher training programs, and I have taught general English in Private schools, multinational companies, and kindergartens. And I am not that unusual, there are a lot of people with similar professional experience in the world these days because teaching English is big business! There is also a huge literature, including several academic journals, devoted to the field of teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL, TESOL etc) and to work for a university or for a quality institution like the British Council or a respected private school, you have to have a Masters degree or a Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults (DELTA). Both of which take a year or more to get. To work as an English teacher in most universities in developed countries these days, you need a PhD.

What about those teaching English who have no other qualification than that English is their mother tongue? Are they the ones who are disqualifying me and others like me from being “real”? Well, they are there because there is a demand for them to be there. The desire to have a “native speaker” as a teacher is misguided in my opinion, but it is strong enough to mean that there are not enough qualified people to fill the posts. So, you get people teaching English who are not properly trained. Some of them turn out to be very effective teachers and some do not; some of them like the job enough to go and get certified, and most go on to other things.

But please, just because there are maybe more unqualified first-timers (as well as some chancers/sexpats etc) in China than in, say, Japan, please do not assume that there is not a body of well qualified and dedicated English teachers here, both Chinese and native speaker.

To repeat my main point, the term “English teacher” means different things in different contexts and to try to limit it to “English literature/grammar teacher”, presumably because that is what your “English” lessons consisted of at school, is misleading and unhelpful. Please use your site to welcome a broad church of English teachers to China and please give them more professional respect. Thank you!

End of comment.

Again, the Doc wouldn’t allow this on his site, but he did at least have the courtesy to tell me why not. He sent me an email explaining that…As I have spent upward of one year researching, writing, and revising this guide, I am going to use this website as my personal pulpit and not as a forum for open debate…I’m going to use it to proselytize my point of view…Of course there are exceptions, as pointed out in the guide, but I don’t feel the need to air them in a way that casts dispersions (sic) on or distracts readers from the main points that have been raised.

Well, there we have it. It’s not only the CCP that thinks that reasonable and rational discussion is “unhelpful”. If you don’t like the voice of the other side, silence it! (NB The only comments I have censored on my blog have been insulting or abusive ones…yes Dude, those ones.)

On the other hand, it’s his blog (his little domain) so he can do what he wants. Fair enough, I just think it paints a misleading, not to mention condescending, portrait of English teachers.

We’re not that bad, are we? Comments welcome.