June 9, 2007

The Years BC

Filed under: China,culture,east-west — Kim @ 5:43 pm

I’ve only been here a few months but it’s already getting hard to imagine life Before China.

There hasn’t been anything that has gone so totally against my expectations as to really shock me, I mean I had heard about censorship and recent rapid modernisation etc etc. I guess my biggest surprise has been the lowness of the average wage. Most people here seem to be on 2000 kwai a month or less, and how do they live on that?

But anyway, I recently started thinking about the anecdotes, images, and random impressions of and about China that made up my mental map of The Middle Kingdom long before I ever set foot on Chinese soil.

Of course we had some China bits at school in our history and geography lessons. Warlords, The Long March, Mao, Millions and Millions and MILLIONS of (similar looking) People, The One Child Policy, The Great Wall, Confucius he say…bla bla bla. But before all of that there were the associations of China from early childhood, that time of intense and exaggerated images that continue to affect us long after they have been diluted by experience and maturity.

Popular culture sketched in most of my inklings of The Orient and, let’s be clear here, at such an early age there wasn’t much distinguishing between China and Japan…and Korea was terra incognita. First off there was the Yellow Peril stuff such as Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon, Fu Manchu, James Bond’s Dr No, and Marvel’s arch-enemy of Iron Man, The Mandarin. All cruel and calculating and utterly inscrutable villains. Those high cheekbones and slanted eyes! Those deadpan faces! The asiatic pitilessness! Perhaps this is why at school we would give each other “Chinese burns” and talk in curious wonder of “The Chinese Water Torture”.

And somewhere a long long way out east around the time of my peaceful Sussex childhood, Mao was indeed killing millions with his stubborn pride and hunger for power, his crackpot schemes, and his indifference to suffering. But Mao’s mass-produced ruddily chubby and beaming visage didn’t fit the central casting image of an oriental despot, so it couldn’t really be true.

And of course there was Kung Fu/Martial Arts…Bruce Lee and Karate Kid and all that. In our playground we all knew that anybody Chinese could kick our arses with their dark arts, so it was a good thing we never met any. But best of all was the weekly dose of “Monkey!” which was actually a Japanese program about the Chinese legend but nobody knew or cared about that. It was full of great fight scenes and funny characters and cool gimmicks like the expanding fighting staff that Monkey kept behind his ear, the flying cloud he could whistle up, and the crown that he had to wear that would burn into his skull if the wonderfully named Tripitaka chose to pray to Buddha for punishment for the unruly monkey king. There was also a series called “The Water Margin”, which I can remember watching avidly.

And in the corners of our consciousnesses were inky images of misty mountains, dragons, red lanterns, pigtails, bound feet, and Chinese characters. Most of which made its way into Tintin and The Blue Lotus, of course.

Also, I can vividly remember my first trip to London’s China Town, all those succulent golden brown ducks and strips of red pork hung up in the restaurant windows! I felt like a Dickensian urchin salivating at edible delights beyond his reach…my parents didn’t trust Chinese hygeine so we never went to sample this wonderful looking fare.

I’d be interested to hear the US, Canadian, Irish, Australian (etc) equivalent to all this eastern baggage from an English childhood.

Adolescence added very little to it, and it wasn’t till my early adult years out in Hungary that China began to crop up on the radar again. I became an English teacher immediately after I graduated, yes, I’ve been at this lark for over 10 years now, and some of my colleagues had done a stint in China. One of them was my British ex-boss from a place in Budapest called The Central European University (hello John!) a crisply spoken public school “officer class” type character with some redeeming eccentricities and weaknesses. He’d served some time in China early on in his teaching career as part of a plan to get a good position at The British Council – they like chaps who can hack China – and he’d hated it and only stayed a year. His first comment when I asked him what kind of time he’d had in China was that he’d never been colder (he was living south of Shanghai, just beyond the radiator border) and then he said that all Chinese thought the same way. I couldn’t believe my ears! Here was a well read and intelligent man, who’d actually lived in China, who seemed to be confirming all the lazy stereotypes. I hadn’t been east of Romania and had never actually spoken more than restaurant orders to a Chinese person at that time, but of course I challenged him on this. Well, he admitted, he’d been exaggerating…but only slightly. He definitely discerned a standard issue Chinese mindset, and Chinese education, he claimed, crammed them with assembly line opinions that were not up for discussion. He had taught at a provincial university.

I took this in but never really believed it and my own experience at Dalian University of Foreign Languages doesn’t bear it out. But still, it’s quite telling about the sort of impression China can give.

The Central European University also had a fair few Russians and some Mongolians, and I heard a couple of snippets about China from a pair of them. Can’t remember how we got on the topic, but the Russian guy came out with a “joke” about China and Russia going to war. In the first week 5 million Chinese die, in the second week 20 million Chinese die, in the third week 100 million, and in the fourth week China wins. The Mongolian then chipped in with the surreal comment that “Yes, in my country we say that these days the Chinese could defeat us simply by throwing their hats at us!” He grinned broadly, showing a lot of gold teeth, “So many hats!”

After Hungary and just before I went to Japan (in March 2001) I taught for three months at a private language school in Brighton, south England. We had a few Chinese there and the main thing I remember is how happy most of them were that they could actually talk to and be friends with our Japanese students, who – wonder of wonders – turned out to be friendly and kind and ready to talk sensibly about the Chinese-Japanese recent past.

I also remember the first piece of writing I got from a young Chinese lady who could barely speak or understand spoken English. It was grammatically almost perfect and showed a range of vocabulary I hadn’t thought her capable of…because she’d done a lot of grammar translation stuff in her English lessons of course. It said something along the lines of ” I want to work hard here and improve my English to the best of my ability. I am going to go back to China to be an English teacher. I love my country and I want to do my best for my motherland!” I laughed and showed it to a colleague, “Christ, real “little red book stuff”,” he said.

And then there was the time I had two Chinese sitting side by side as I was setting up a discussion activity in which they had to explain their national cuisine to a partner. I told them I had better move them so they could properly do this, but no…”She is from the south and I am from Beijing” explained the young man, “and we want to know about each other’s cooking!” I was surprised and asked them if they really didn’t already know, and they said they didn’t and chatted away happily for the next 20 minutes. “China is a big country!” he told me at the end of the lesson.

And sure enough, here in Dalian, North China, I have found that almost nobody knows what Dim Sum is.

So there you have it, a potted history of my BC years.

And you?


  1. My early impressions were quite similar, minus “Monkey” – you Brits lucked out, as we Canucks were left wanting. I first learned of the Monkey King from Stephen Chow here in the Mainland.

    It’s funny to look back now and consider how absolutely naive I was before I came to China. I mean, up until 2004, when I read The Rape of Nanking while in Northern Thailand, I had absolutely no idea about a single Chinese city (other than Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong – but didn’t know where any of them were).

    Ya know, I’m going to borrow this for a little writing project I’ve been looking to start on Lost Laowai. 🙂

    Comment by The Humanaught — June 10, 2007 @ 11:59 pm

  2. […] the post, entitled “The Years BC“, Kim recounts the (often entertainment-industry induced) rather skewed knowledge he had of […]

    Pingback by Group Writing Project: If I Knew Then What I Know Now | Lost Laowai China Blog — June 11, 2007 @ 1:43 am

  3. Hope the project takes off! Good idea.

    Comment by Kim — June 11, 2007 @ 2:51 pm

  4. Nice one! Oo, makes me want to get to work on my submission. I’ve been in Dalian for a year but I’m about to leave – so it would be just the time to sum up…

    Nice post about cuteness too – ughghgh. 长舟丫

    Comment by 长舟丫 — June 13, 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  5. In my hometown in Canada things were remarkably similar to what Kim has described, except I don’t know about Monkey. The major difference is that in school we had lots of Chinese around. Some were named Howard and Karen and were in our classes and spoke English and wore the same clothes as the white kids. Others were in special classes, didn’t speak English and wore funny, cheap-looking clothes. They had names like V. Tranh and M. Tranh. Later I realized that they were Vietnamese!

    Comment by Sean — June 16, 2007 @ 10:53 am

  6. […] that projects contributions here. Well worth a visit. Here’s an excerpt: In the post, entitled “The Years BC“, Kim recounts the (often entertainment-industry induced) rather skewed knowledge he had of China […]

    Pingback by Welcome « Japan with hindsight — June 17, 2007 @ 1:35 pm

  7. Nicely, done…

    Love the idea of BC…may start referring to things that way, but I am apt to begin
    sounding awfully old…

    Glad to have found you….

    best from GZ


    Comment by lonniebhodge — June 18, 2007 @ 3:00 am

  8. […] The Years BC :: By Kim […]

    Pingback by China Blogging - Living in China, studying Chinese, web design and development. » Lost Laowai’s Group Writing Project: If I knew then what I knew now — June 18, 2007 @ 12:04 pm

  9. “After Hungary and just before I went to Japan (in March 2001) I taught for three months at a private language school in Brighton, south England. We had a few Chinese there and the main thing I remember is how happy most of them were that they could actually talk to and be friends with our Japanese students, who – wonder of wonders – turned out to be friendly and kind and ready to talk sensibly about the Chinese-Japanese recent past.”

    This is so true, and in line with my own experience. Bring people into a new, to them foreign environment, and they actually start to act like normal people. I have seen it when I sailed, and we sometimes had more than 12 different nationalities on board. People just got along well, despite how some of them had been brainwashed and full of prejudice in their own environments.

    Comment by Starnded Mariner — June 18, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

  10. @Stranded Mariner – well said. The problem is getting them away from their native environment. So many people, so little desire to see/hear/taste anything not of China.

    Comment by MyLaowai — July 4, 2007 @ 12:51 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.