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.

April 5, 2009

Adult Reading

Filed under: China,culture,east-west,teaching — Kim @ 9:02 am

My new job at “The University of Nottingham in Ningbo” is a good one and things are going well so far. The compact little campus is lovely: clean and green and pleasant, peaceful yet not dull, family-friendly, multicultural, (sounds disturbingly similar to a Jehovah’s Witness cartoon paradise actually) and full of mixed-race babies and toddlers for my own little mutt to make friends with. It is not really China, it’s more like a little Sino-British bubble tucked away on the edge of the city. The staff hotel I’m staying at has a bar/restaurant called “The Robin Hood” (so we ‘hang out in the hood’ for beers of course) and there is cricket and tennis, a properly stocked library, a computer in every office, a chicken in every pot, and – a real reverse culture shock here- the toilets all have toilet paper.

The only problem is Ningbo. After Dalian, Ningbo comes across as a decidedly drab little city and sadly deserves its nickname of “Ningboring.” But not to worry because Hangzhou and Shanghai are close by, and they both rock. Like, totally.

But in any case…on to my “thought for today”. A couple of weeks ago I went on a daytrip with a group of staff and students (mostly first and second years – 26 females, 1 bloke) to listen to some talking heads at the Shanghai literary festival. We went on Saturday March 21 and listened to Simon Schama talking away wittily and at furious pace about “The American Future” and to a presentation by the two translator’s of Wang Gang’s “English:A Novel” (英格力士 – Ying Ge Li Shi) which featured Wang Gang himself reading a couple of extracts in the original Mandarin. (Followed by one of the translator’s reading the same extract in English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write about it, you understand.)

One of the extracts was an amusing piece of “toilet humour’ in which the main character, a little boy called “Love Liu”, ends up peeing in the urinal next to his English master and, on sneaking a peek, is bowled over by the size of the teacher’s todger. The second passage took us from comedy to tragedy and described a scene in which Love Liu is watching his father paint a huge portrait of Mao on a wall. The novel is set during the Cultural Revolution when any depiction of Mao had to be treated with great reverence of course, and it wasn’t hard to sense trouble on the horizon. Sure enough, while the father is painting Mao’s body – having finished the head already – along come two cadres and criticise him for leaving out one of Mao’s ears. The father protests that the laws of perspective demand he do this but the cadres insist he paint the ear on anyway. When he does so they complain that it looks strange and accuse him of trying to make Mao look ridiculous, then one of the cadres gives the father a resounding slap on the face while berating him. The boy of course is left smouldering with shame and impotent anger.

I thought the piece portrayed well the paranoid “spirit of the times” and was especially good at conveying the shock – and loss of innocence – of the young boy on finding out that his beloved and respected father could be treated with such contempt. But this second snippet did not please many of the students we’d bussed in for the day. One of our little darlings stood up at question time after the speech and demanded of the Chinese translator (the lovely Jane Weizhen Pan) why she had chosen to translate a book about “a time that is rather strange to my generation and gives foreigners a bad image of China”. Ms Pan chose not to answer, and indeed looked a bit put out, but fellow translator Martin Merz smoothed things over by saying that they had been given the book as a job to do by the publisher, “so the book chose us” he said.

I suppose that “English:A novel” is in some ways “shaming” for China insofar as it deals with what is often termed as a ‘shameful” period. Indeed, the Amazon spiel about it says it is “a transcendent novel about a boy’s self-discovery, a country’s shame, and the transporting power of language.” But the point is that through its humour and its humanism, the novel transcends petty face-saving concerns over “shame” and “country” and it can help readers to do the same…if they will let it.

Anyway, a little later myself and one of my colleagues had a chat with some of the students about what they’d thought of the session and especially about issues raised by the question. Drastically summarised, the conversation went something along these lines:

Middle-aged Western teachers...Don’t you think that all of a nation’s history needs to be explored? Even the uncomfortable bits? So as to be able to understand and face up to mistakes.

Young Chinese students…We shouldn’t show the bad times from China to the world. Why do foreigners always want to talk about the Cultural Revolution?

Teachers….But it’s not the job of literature to promote a country. Literature is about exploring human behaviour, not showcasing a country’s achievements.

Students…Chinese writers should write about China in a way that gives foreigners a favourable impression. Chinese literature should inspire young Chinese to love their country and be better people.

Gah! Cultural mismatch ahoy! But also – I am starting to think – it was perhaps more fundamentally an age mismatch…albeit an age mismatch affected by culture.

Let me explain: In my humble opinion, Asian youngsters take longer to become young adults than their counterparts in the West. When I first went to Japan to work in a Japanese university I was horrified by the Freshman Party. It involved balloons, pass the parcel, lots of photos with the teachers, and lashings of ginger beer and cola. (Yes, it sounds like a McDonalds’ birthday party.) I looked back fondly to my fresher’s partying in England in which any game of pass the parcel would have probably involved prizes of condoms and joints. Now, I know sex and drugs and KTV are not what maketh a man, and there were other differences too, like the Japanese freshman’s lack of political and historical awareness, lack of ability to think critically, and lack of cynicism and irony. But the youth in asia (sounds like euthanasia, innit?) catch up within a few years, and I don’t just mean they start drinking and shagging. Most of the final year students I talk to in Japan and China are much more clued up and look and behave like adults.

There were echoes of this point recently on Mr Thinkweird’s blog in which he – a young Chinese male blogger – asserted that

I was a Fenqing myself several years ago (anti-Japan), but now I moved on. Fenqing can’t survive very long after they are exposed to the realities and truth. Once Fenqing enter the society, see more and get busy making a living, they will change.

That said, the Gang Wang incident reminded me of another literary anecdote from my time at Dalian University of Foreign Languages when about a year ago, as a very rare treat, we had a guest lecture by the Irish Kafka specialist and top translator,Mark Harman. The lecture was OK but anyway in a post-lecture bar conversation (where most of the interesting stuff gets said) Mr Harman told us of a curious incident that had happened to him up in Beijing. He had opted to conclude his lecture there with a quote from an appropriately titled article called – if I remember properly – “Kafka in China” in which the author had proposed that Kafka was a universal writer who by rendering the fundamental strangeness/absurdity of the human condition so strikingly was able to spring the locks of mind forg’d nationalist manacles and usher readers into the broad sunlit uplands of a post-nationalist perspective. Or something like that…in any case Prof. Harman was rather startled when one of the Beijing University literature professors stood up at question time and vigorously denounced this piece of whimsy by stating that any Chinese reader worth his salt would always stay first and foremost and fundamentally Chinese, and that this sort of post-nationalist talk was insidious propaganda that was probably designed to weaken Chinese love for the motherland and etc etc etc. Mark Harman has a nice wry sense of humour and although an Irishman in a bar has been known to embellish a tale occasionally, it rings true. And can you imagine any Western literary scholar talking like that? Or at least if they did, they’d be laughed out of town for sounding so childish. “We just don’t think that way anymore” as Mark Harman put it. (Though just who the “we” in that comment is referring to is a bit problematic.)

I suppose my point is that, generally speaking, Chinese are more prone to see literature through the prism of nationalism than Westerners – and young Chinese much more so. It takes a while for them to get rid of their high school “education”, I guess. Wang Gang’s “English” is at its heart a novel about “growing up” and my hope would be that those “patriotic objector” students we bussed in to the Shanghai Literature Festival will read it and let it help them “grow up” too.

As a happy ending, I find it refreshing, and inspiring even, that such an irreverent and “adult” novel as Wang Gang’s “English” should become “A major bestseller in China, where it was voted best novel of the year independently by the critics and the general public” (Book blurb). Surely the book’s success is a sign that China’s civil society is growing, and growing up.

February 25, 2009

Mr Crazy

Filed under: China,Dalian,teaching — Kim @ 3:59 am

I have said before, and will say again, that I think most English teachers I have come across in China (and Japan and Thailand and Hungary) are decent, well-adjusted people who do a professional job.

But a minority are not, and they tend to smear the reputation of the majority. So far so predictable…but these guys also provide a lot of fun and good stories, and last night while drinking with a couple of old-school Dalian English teachers I was treated to a few teacherly tales about some of the weirder ones who’ve drifted through the Dalian TEFL scene over the years.

I thought the best story was about Crazy Jack. Ole Crazy Jack apparently was a big guy who could get quite violent when drunk – I think we’ve all heard our fair share of anecdotes about those kinds of alcoholic antics – but anyway, and all, the conversation about him started something like this…

“Oh yeah and what about Crazy Jack! You remember him?”

“Remember him! Man, my third night in Dalian I got talking to Crazy Jack in Dave’s bar and after a few beers he asked me if I’d like to go back to his place, take a couple of Es, and then he’d cross-dress for me.”

I think “Crazy Jack” earned his nickname there. I’ve never actually worked with a drug-loving, cross-dressing, bar-brawling bisexual…but I kind of wish I had.

(Oh, and I changed his name. He’s not “Jack”, but he is crazy.)

February 21, 2009

Get Packing

Filed under: China,culture,teaching — Kim @ 6:39 am

Next Thursday I am upping sticks with the wife and sprog and moving down to start a three-year stint in Ningbo, working at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo. (About which more later).

And so I have spent the last two days doing my bloody packing. The bloody packing wouldn’t be that annoying if it weren’t for all the dozens of files full of newspaper cuttings and letters and photocopies I’ve accumulated over the years and which I have to trawl through every time I move. I usually manage to ruthlessly discard about 1.6% of my corpus. I think my generation (I’m 38) missed out by 5 years or so on the massive convenience of simply sticking all those words words words on laptops and thumbdrives. The fact that newspapers are online now and that all my lesson plans and teaching materials and correspondence can be stuck on a little dinkymajig on my keyring is just amazing.

It doesn’t help that I’m a hoarder, and having been a TEFL teacher for over ten years I’ve accumulated more papercrap than the average hoarder. I am very reluctant to throw away something that could become the basis of hours of teaching and save me a lot of preparation. And you never know when you will finally get round to reading that article you photocopied 7 years ago in Edinburgh and has been half way round the world with you already so shame to throw it away now really….

Result = I am carting 40 kilos of words from North to South China. Absurd!

Oh well, got that off my chest. Back to it.

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.