Is it really that time on the month again? If my mood is any clue, then I think it must be. It’s time to sit down once again for another Empty Chair Interview with ME!
What was that, a menstruation joke? I think it was. How crude of me. Menstruation jokes aren’t funny. PERIOD!
The last time I interviewed myself, it took on a bit of a darker tone – excessive drinking tends to have that effect on my writing. But this time will be different, I promise. I’m actually feeling quite chipper this morning, and drunk-me is taking the day-off!
“Good morning, me… Why yes, I have had my morning tug. What a treat! …No, I’m not normally into that stuff… Why don’t you mind your damn business!”
My apologies, the voices in my head can be so inappropriate. Don’t mind them.
I’ve decided to shake things up a bit this time around. Whereas normally I would take my seat (or seats) and converse with the empty one, this time I’ve decided to take my chair with me as I go about my regular daily routines. I’ve bought a swanky new fold-up chair just for the occasion. I even named it ‘The Premise’.
I hope, dear reader, that you and The Premise will become quite familiar with one another before too long.
If you’re unfamiliar with my previous interviews, then I must sound absolutely bonkers at this point. So this would be a good opportunity to recommend that you do read at least a few others before continuing any further. It’s not going to become any more sensible from here on in.
Have you ever read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Wacky Wednesday‘? If not, then read that too, because this is my…
My day begins in typical fashion with a cup of instant-coffee and shortly followed after by my morning dump (I’m beginning to wonder if the two are related). I shower, make a half-arsed attempt at making the bed, and then it’s off to work! It’s a beautiful sunny day. What could possibly go wrong?
If you’ve read my first self-interview, you may recall that I am employed as an English Teacher in China.
If that sounds like an exciting job prospect, then calm the fuck down right now!
ESL (English as a Second Language) is a very hit-and-miss sort of industry in China, as are many. This is a strange land of pseudo-businesses and loosely-applied regulations – a bit like the old American-West in its style. Be weary, young traveler, be weary.
ancient Chinese meme
That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed my time in China – I certainly have! China’s been good to me (for the most part). I’ve grown so much as a person here that it’s difficult to overstate, so I won’t bother even trying. I’ve been luckier than most. Let’s leave it at that.
My current employment in the past three years (of four in China) has found me living in Shanghai. If you don’t know anything about the city, just try to imagine (if you can) 20+ MILLION people (more than the entire population of Australia) all living in the same area!
the Shanghai skyline as seen from The Bund
It’s a colossal area, but still. Some days I feel like I see more people in a single day than I ever did in the 23 years I lived in Australia. That’s probably an exaggeration, but you get my point.
“But James, you hate large crowds. Why live in a place with so many people?”
My chair, The Premise speaks up at last, and about time too. How did I ever get this far into my interview without it?
“Shanghai has a unique style of old-meets-new. There’s a weird mix of history and architecture which can be quite stunning to behold. There’s always something happening somewhere, so there’s no excuse to be bored. More than that though, you can make some serious bank here. There’s only one problem though…”
“Shanghai is in China.”
“Woah, that sounds border-line racist! Explain yourself right now before we lose our entire audience.”
“Fair enough. I know how bad that must sound, but it’s not what you think. I like Chinese people as individuals. I think they’re some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, and there are many aspects of Chinese culture and the lifestyle which I admire and enjoy.
The Chinese are also impressively welcoming and open to outsiders (the white ones at least, but I’ll get to that later), and more so than most western countries, in my experience. They’re generally decent regular-arse people like anywhere else. Buuuuut (I know anything said before the word ‘but’ doesn’t count, buuuuut don’t judge me yet) there are drawbacks too – major ones!”
The Premise seems contented somewhat by my response and settles down just enough to hear me out (I hope you’re still with me too).
I breathe a sigh of relief. The Premise is my check-and-balance, and it doesn’t take that sort of talk lightly, even from me. When it says ‘sit!’ I say ‘how low?’
I’ve just arrived at the subway station – my usual form of transportation (NEVER drive in China! – I’ll get to that one later too) so this seems like the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my first example, and I don’t have long to wait…
I enter the MASSIVE station, but before I’m anywhere even near the platform itself, I have to pass through the security checkpoint. That’s right, you read correctly, a SECURITY CHECKPOINT in the subway station. But as weird as that might sound, it’s nothing like your common airport variety.
This is China.
a typical sight in the subway
There was once a time, in my more naive China-years, when I would place my bag on the x-ray scanner (yes, they actually have those at subway stations) every time that I passed through. Then I discovered that I could quite easily (and far more quickly) just walk on by (without even slowing my pace) while simply holding my bag open (even barely) for the security ‘officers’ to ‘inspect’.
This inspection has NEVER consisted of anything more than a cursory glance and an utterly pointless pat of my bag as I rush past. I haven’t tried it before, but I’m confident I could run through without so much as a surprised look.
“So why even bother with security if they don’t take it seriously?”
I’ve piqued The Premise’s interest…
“Exactly! That’s the number one thing I’ve learnt about China – no one gives a shit about anything so long as they ‘appear’ to do so.”
“China is a land of blatant self-contradictions.”
“This feature applies to EVERY aspect of society – from lowly street cleaner, to high-ranking government official.”
“It’s all a farce!”
“I’ve had this exact sort of conversation sooo many times with my fellow ex-pats, or ‘laowai’ (foreigner) and have never ONCE heard a story which contradicts this basic truth, but many which confirm it.”
“China doesn’t give a shit!”
“Do keep in mind though that for every contradiction, there is (usually) a silver-lining. It was only recently, for example that China banned smoking indoors. But don’t think for a moment that it has been enforced since then. I still smell cigarette smoke regularly in stairwells, restaurants, and even elevators. This is despite all the no-smoking signs everywhere along with the threat of considerable fines for both perpetrators AND their employers.”
these sorts of signs are generally optional
“Really, that’s your ‘silver-lining’ – indoor-smoking?”
The Premise doesn’t seem convinced…
“No, that’s not the point I’m trying to make, allow me to clarify. Back in Australia, or any other western country, one is often on the look-out for a policeman ready to bust them for breaking any number of minor infringements, no matter how silly. Take jaywalking or public swearing for example. Do you think you can be busted for such nonsense in China? Haha, no sir! Similar laws still exist, mind you. They’re just not enforced.”
”I can at least say of China that there is a greater level of day-to-day freedom to be experienced, because again, no one gives a shit.”
The Premise looks at me with a slight frown. It still needs convincing…
“Take another example, ‘The Great Firewall of China’ – I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Many popular websites, particularly social-media (as well as ALL porn *sob*) are blocked by the Chinese Government.”
“But James, you use social-media and watch porn all the time!”
“Indeed I do. And the demand for VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to skirt the firewall for business and busty-dames alike has created a considerable industry of its own. It’s so easy to get a VPN that the Great Firewall is little more than a laughable nuisance.”
The Great Firewall of China
“The thing is though, the government already knows this, but they choose to ignore it (most of the time). I KNOW, as does everyone else that they could shut down most VPNs currently in-use at any time they wish. I know this because they do exactly that every now and then – sometimes on a whim, sometimes to remind us that they can, and sometimes because a major political event is taking place.”
“But for the most part, the Chinese Government doesn’t give a shit either. And that’s just fine with me.”
I’ve since passed through security and am on my way to the platform along with a plethora of other commuters. And this is where the expectorate-chorus begins…
“That’s gross! I can’t believe you even managed to write that sound.”
I think The Premise is starting to come around to my side…
“Yeah, and it isn’t a rare occurrence either. It’s standard – the natural mating-call of the Chinese. A day without the cacophony of hocking loogies is like a day without pollution (HA! – we’ll get to that one later as well). You might be foolhardy enough to believe you’ll develop a dead-ear to it after a while, but I assure you, you never will.”
“It’s gross and it always will be!”
“Then there’s the public urination. It’s EVERYWHERE! I get it sometimes, and I’ve been guilty of the same thing before, but not in BROAD DAYLIGHT and FULL-VIEW of dozens of complete strangers – men, women AND children – WHAT. THE. FUCK.”
a woman relieves herself in public – seriously?
“Sorry China, but your personal-hygiene habits are disgusting!”
“And don’t even get me started on the public restroom situation.”
I shudder at the thought of ever having used one.
public toilet photograph censored by the Chinese Government
“That utterly revolting!”
The Premise looks like its about to hurl, but manages to keep it together before continuing…
“I really don’t want to know anymore, buuuuut I kinda do. What else?”
I definitely have The Premise hooked now…
“Spitting and public urination aside, this leads quite effectively into my next point. If ever you find yourself in China, don’t expect the standards of ‘manners’ and ‘common courtesy’ from your own country to be commonplace. China has a whole other notion of what it means to be polite, or ‘harmonious’ as it is more accurately described.
“Oh, so they’re rude as well as being slobs? Hang on, this is sounding a bit too much like ignorant China-bashing. What’s the big idea?”
“Well, before you accuse me of anything, let me be clear. The Chinese are not ‘intentionally’ rude, it’s just that they have a different set of standards that they are used to. Having said that, the bar seems to have been set pretty damn low.
There are so many things which we take for granted in a country like Australia. Just imagine (on the rare occasions it happens – it does) how people react when someone cuts in front of a line. In China though, that sort of behavior is an almost everyday occurrence, and no one even bats an eye.”
”They don’t mean to be rude, it’s just the way things are.”
“After a while you can even anticipate someone about to do it. They’re not even subtle with their lack of civility.”
The Premise mumbles something discourteous, but at least it’s listening again (I sincerely hope, dear reader, that you still are too).
We now come to the ‘coup de gras’ of common ‘harmonious’ Chinese behavior… getting onto the train.
It’s typically busy in the mornings on the subway, and today is no exception. Normally this daily affair would bother me to the point of mild insanity – not today though.
Today I have the chair!
If you think that’s a metaphor, or symbolic of how chairs centre me, I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. The simple act of trying to get in or out of the subway-car can be so dire at times that having a portable chair-shaped implement can actually be quite useful. I’ve seen many a heavy suitcase lugged in such an attempt. A local comedian I once saw described it as ‘the Shanghai hug’.
the Shanghai hug in rush hour
“They push; they shove; they spout profanities at one another as EVERYONE tries simultaneously to get ON and OFF the train at the same time.”
“They’re like children!”
“Are you serious? Is it really that bad?”
The Premise is coming back to me now…
“In China, it’s first-come, first-served ALWAYS, and NO ONE will EVER accept second-place. It’s LITERARY an offense to one’s pride to be anything other than number one… for ANYTHING!
Before I came to China, I had no idea how important it was to teach children from a young age to wait their turn. That’s evidently a foreign concept to the Chinese.”
“Patience is NOT a Chinese virtue – WINNING IS!”
“Do you remember that one smart-arse back in high school who would sarcastically yell out while standing in-line…
“Come on guys, the more we push, the faster we get there!”
Can you just imagine putting such an attitude into practice… no? Then come to China, please. You would be SHOCKED at how accurate that notion is here.”
“I DARE you to witness it first-hand!”
I have to stop for a moment as I’m getting a little too worked-up. I feel I need to restate that I DO in fact like China and Chinese people, but the day is young and we’re still a long way until I come to the part of the day that keeps me going. I PROMISE you, it’s coming…
“You may recall that I stated my affection for Chinese people ‘as individuals’. By this, I mean that they’re wonderful once you get to know them. They can be as close and affectionate a bunch of mates as any. And yet, common behavior towards friends and acquaintances compared with strangers is as different as night and day.”
I’m not suggesting that everyone should treat a complete stranger as their best buddy, but surely one’s fellow countrymen (or fellow human beings for that matter) are deserving of a little more respect than what I witness daily.
“There’s something really off about the Chinese mentality in regards to public behavior, dignity, and respect. Something in Confucianist philosophy (upon which Chinese society is supposedly founded) clearly got lost in translation. I’ll leave it up to the philosophy-majors and sociologists to determine just what that is, but in practice, it’s a disaster!”
Confucius say: ‘my bad’
“Oh yeah! Like what?”
The Premise is testing me again. I have to be careful, and on-point.
“A poignant example comes to mind, actually. In the west, we often perceive Chinese culture as holding honour in the highest regard. However the western and Chinese concepts of honour are VASTLY different. Let me explain…
In western society, to admit one’s mistakes and strive to do better is the MOST honorable thing a person can do (do you disagree?). In Chinese society, the OPPOSITE is true…
NEVER admit you’re wrong, even when everyone knows that you are. To do so is to lose ‘face’, the most accurate translation of the Chinese concept of honour.”
“If the notion of ‘face-value’ reeks of external perception being regarded more highly than internal, that’s because it is.”
“This is honour at the level of a CHILD!”
“But what about Mulan? She had honour coming out the wazoo, and she saved all of China! I saw it all in the Disney movie.”
I’m not really sure why The Premise would bring up a cartoon of all things… perhaps it’s because ‘Mulan’ was one of the very first memorable experiences I had with Chinese culture as a child.
the real Mulan was a badass
The legend and poem the Disney movie is based on is epic and inspirational. That’s one of the aspects of Chinese culture I most admire – POETRY! I guess The Premise knows me better than I thought (way to go, buddy!).
[Note to self: write ‘An Empty Chair Interview with Mulan’]
If you’re ever interested in the unique style of Chinese poetry, dear reader, please check out this piece first. I promise it will BLOW. YOUR. MIND. and in the best way possible.
“Mulan being what she is, it’s ironic that a culture so famous for its supposed high-value of honour would, in actuality, have such a LOW grasp of the concept.
Time and time again I see people INCAPABLE of expressing ANY level of humility or to learn from their mistakes. It’s quite alarming.
One overwhelmingly common example is as follows… two people bump into each other on the street, often because one (or both) of them was looking down at his phone and not paying attention. I’m sure you would agree that in most countries, what would (usually) follow is an embarrassed apology from the one at fault, and an acceptance of that apology from the other, before both parties go about their merry day… yes?
One might even expect the idiot on his phone to learn a lesson from the experience – DON’T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE WHILE WALKING! (Ironically I happen to be typing this while doing exactly that, but I’ve only ever walked into trees.)
As with everything thus far – in China, it’s a whole different story…
Two people bump into each other and their first reaction is to blame the other. It doesn’t matter that one of them may have been more at fault than the other. The mere thought of ‘it might have been my fault’ never even occurs to either of them.
So after a mutual spat of abuse at the top of their lungs, the two eventually return to their child-like bubbles and storm off in a huff, none-the-wiser from the encounter.”
“Chinese society has UTTERLY failed to instill a basic level of critical thought, self-examination and internalization in its general public.”
“It’s like Never-Land – nobody ever grows up.”
two Chinese cupcakes prepare to square-off in a match to the death
“In a time when China is fast-becoming a leading world-power, if the country wants to claim an ‘honorable’ and respected status within the global community, then it NEEDS to take a long, deep, and hard look at itself.
It needs to stand at attention (erect, even), look the gaping black hole of reality in the face, and FUCK itself into the 21st century!”
“China has a GLORIOUS five-thousand year history! Do you really think…”
I cut off The Premise before it can continue discharging such drivel…
“Falling back on the ‘five-thousand glorious years of history’ nonsense is NOT a valid argument for ANYTHING! It’s frankly pathetic how often that card is played.
Do you know which nationality of tourists is the most complained about globally? I don’t think I even need to tell you at this point… (look up ‘bad Chinese tourists‘ on Youtube – do it, do it, do it!)”
Damn… I’m so sorry, dear reader. That was an earful, and then some. It feels good to get it all off my chest, but damn, was I too harsh? Let’s slow down a bit. I’ve almost arrived at my stop.
“I understand that no one likes to hear criticism of their nation and culture, especially from a foreigner, and as a guest in their country, I must be respectful. But it’s a conversation that needs to be had, openly and honestly.”
”The Naive Little Yellow Star has to come of age.”
“You seem to have sooooo many opinions about Chinese culture, but have you ever actually spoken to a Chinese person about these things before?”
The Premise has a good point, but I’m ready for it…
“I HAVE had this EXACT sort of conversation with Chinese people, but only with those I’ve gotten to know well enough where-in I don’t come across as just another ‘stupid laowai‘. It’s not always easy, and OBVIOUSLY I have to tone it down a great deal – one point at a time, but it’s progress of a sort, and I’ve learned more from those conversations than any of my personal experiences alone.”
“But how can you accurately judge Chinese culture when you yourself are not Chinese?”
The Premise hits me with another valid point…
“If it isn’t already bleeding obvious, I am of course examining all of this through my own cultural-lense.”
You may think, dear reader, that I am closed-minded and lacking a deeper immersion into the Chinese culture, and you may very well be right in that assessment.
I’m not an expert on the country or its culture by any means. This is just an honest account of my experience, but please. If you think you can correct my position on any part of this interview so far (or following), then perhaps we can have a conversation about it sometime.
I’d be more than happy to hear your thoughts.
As I exit the subway, I am reminded of what a blessing today’s clear and sunny weather is. At the same time though, I cannot help but recall a particular incident which occurred on my very first week in China back in 2013 (you may even recall it yourself as it made international NEWS). I distinctly remember being unable to see more than a hundred metres ahead of myself outside. I could barely even make out the apartment block opposite my window. It wasn’t a particularly positive first impression to say the least. There have been others since then, but that was by far the worst incident I’ve experienced.
Before I arrive at work, I usually pass by some shops for a snack or drink, and in doing so I enter a whole new realm of confusion and frustration.
There’s no better example of the limits of human incompetence than China’s service industry.
South Park was more accurate than you may have guessed
“Do tell, oh wise and all-knowing laowai…”
The Premise can be a bit of a jerk at times, but sometimes I need to be knocked down a few pegs too.
“There’s a particular restaurant not far from work which I used to frequent. Their food wasn’t too bad, and neither was their beer. Yet on a consistent basis, I would order a beer FROM THE MENU only to find that it wasn’t stocked… neither was the next one… or the one after that… until finally it would become apparent that only ONE beer was available at the time. WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST TELL ME THAT TO BEGIN WITH!!!
Needless to say, I no longer eat there.
My Chinese isn’t great (it’s shit!) but I’ve at least picked-up enough to get by on a day-to-day basis.
And yet, if I order ‘lianga’ (two of that one) while pointing at the FUCKING menu, or if I’m asked ‘yao dai zi ma?’ (would you like a bag?) – ‘yao’ (yes) when purchasing more items than I can carry without one, I cannot see how my intentions could POSSIBLY be misinterpreted…”
“Certain things are fucking OBVIOUS!”
“What does it take to work in the service industry in this country… to be COMPLETELY and UTTERLY brain-dead?”
as an instant-noodle slut, I am offended
“It may sound like a big fuss over nothing, but is it really so much to ask that I receive basic service? As I said previously, there is a serious lack of critical-thought in this country.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit harsh to judge minimum wage earners so critically?”
Ever the Devil’s advocate, The Premise brings me back to a more sensible state of mind…
“Yes, you’re right. I realise of course that people working in the services industry are just trying to get by, and are usually overworked, underpaid, and poorly treated. And to be fair, I have met some very friendly and helpful service staff. As a creature of habit who usually orders the same items, on occasion I have been recognised as a regular and my order prepared before I have even reached the counter – that’s legitimately good service!
I’m probably not helping by getting stuck into them like this, but the issue of being misunderstood relates to a much deeper problem in Chinese society.
A friend and colleague of mine (as well as many other foreigners I’ve met) regularly encounters the same frustration. Unlike me however, his Chinese is remarkable!
His theory is that many Chinese do not consider foreigners even capable of speaking their language – it’s too sophisticated and cultured for anyone else to master such a nuanced language.”
some Chinese are easily impressed
“To them, we laowai are little more than bumbling apes trying to articulate for the first time.”
“He often uses a great analogy to describe this mentality – If you went to a zoo and a chimp said ‘Hello’ to you, would your first reaction be to strike up a conversation with it, or would it be to exclaim ‘Oh my God, it can talk!’ That really sums up the problem quite well.”
this what they generally see
“So when these particular Chinese people encounter a foreigner who can actually speak to them in their language (regardless of ability), the meaning is totally lost on them; they’re just amazed that the ‘Great White Ape’ can talk!”
[Note to self: write a poem titled ‘The Great White Ape’]
“Are you saying that the Chinese are racist?”
“You could call it a form of racism, but you’d be missing part of the root-cause of the problem.”
it’s not quite so on-the-nose as this
“China is still a very isolated country. The average Chinese person is very far removed from the goings-on of the greater world, or in some cases, even within their own country. For most, foreigners are difficult to relate to and so tend to be a source of genuine curiosity.
As with general public behavior, they don’t mean to be rude, it’s just the way things are.”
“From the perspective of a foreigner however, being ogled at on daily basis is ANNOYING AS HELL!!”
Chinese people never miss an opportunity to take a photo with a foreigner
“This goes double for any poor sap who happens to understand the language. My friend describes it as ‘say-what-you-see’ syndrome. Imagine overhearing ‘Oh look, a foreigner!’ from every single person you pass on the street, every day of your life…”
“His advice – don’t learn Chinese!”
“So your friend is advocating for LESS cultural immersion?”
“If even half the things I’ve discussed so far are true, then I really can’t blame him for having reached his wit’s-end, and he’s been here a lot longer than I have.
I should point out that this a far less common experience in tier-1 cities such as Shanghai or Beijing where foreigners tend to congregate in large numbers, but none are truly free of the ever-pervasive Chinese country-bumpkin.”
My morning snacks acquired, I have almost arrived at work. However one last obstacle stands between me and my ‘Final Destination‘ (that’s an astute movie reference, by the way). This is the most dangerous part of my journey on this, or any other day – crossing the road!
translated by bing.com
“Oh come off it! Are you really saying that crossing the road in China is dangerous?”
“As much as I would like to avoid stereotypes, the common perception of Chinese drivers being the most hopeless on the road is 100% ACCURATE!
If I had ‘yi kuai’ (1 yuan) for every time a scooter has almost struck me while running a red light or speeding down the PEDESTRIAN sidewalk (really!), I’d probably be able to afford half a pack of cigarettes in Australia by now…
The Chinese treat city roads like their own personal highway. Other commuters and pedestrians alike are mere obstacles to be narrowly avoided at the last second like some sort of real-world Chinese version of GTA.”
“China doesn’t have road-rules, it has road-suggestions.”
“Headlights and indicators are regarded as decorative bling, and horns serve only to announce to world – ‘I HAVE A CAR!’
I’ve literally witnessed two scooters in a head-on collision on a dimly-lit road at night because neither could see the other and (you guessed it) THEY HADN’T TURNED THEIR HEADLIGHTS ON!!”
yes, this one
I haven’t even gotten to work yet…
Having somehow managed to elude death yet again, I’m FINALLY about to enter the office. I brush off the various anxieties I’ve picked up from my morning expedition and hop onto the elevator with a sigh.
I arrive at my floor, and OF COURSE, someone tries to get on BEFORE I’ve gotten off – MORON! I squeeze past her on my way out with a slight, but deliberate bump to her shoulder (I should know better than to expect her to get the message though). She responds with a comical ‘ay you’ (the Chinese exclamation for annoyance) and proves my point.
And now… at long last… I arrive at the little slice of pie which gives meaning to an otherwise bleak existence – work.
This is where I can be a little more positive…
a more modern (but still ancient) Chinese meme
I like my job, I’m good at it. And I’ve carved myself out a nice little niche in which I’m able to remain productive while still satisfying my need for creativity. I’ll get to that soon enough, but there are some MAJOR issues with the ESL industry that need to be addressed first.
I place The Premise beside by regular (and silent) office chair and our interview resumes…
“The nature of the ESL industry is one of sneaky salesmanship. We’re not really a school, we’re an interactive daycare centre which also happens to teach English. Some centres are better than others, but ALL prioritise selling their product and keeping the clients happy over actually teaching anything of value to the students.”
“If the kids have fun, my job is done!”
“So you’re not really a teacher after all?”
Well fuck you too, Premise.
“Yes, and no. It’s a bit of a grey area. Technically I am teaching, and my job title (at least on the English version of my contract) says as much, but there is no set curriculum I am expected to follow, and no one to check the quality of my work apart from my boss, whose integrity on the matter is already compromised.
I’m essentially handed a textbook, thrown into a room with a bunch of kids (often of widely different language proficiency) and left to my own devices.”
“Once again, it’s all a farce.”
“Now personally, I’m ok with that. As with everything else, the lack of enforced regulations provides certain opportunities and freedoms to get creative with the job, and do it MY way.
I’m not a top-notch educator by any means (obviously – I work at a daycare centre in China), but I do posses the right temperament, and I’ve found ways to incorporate the skills I do possess into a style which I believe works.
“And what skills do you possess?”
I could almost kiss The Premise at this point, but then I’d just be making out with myself…
“I can write!”
“When I first arrived on the job, I found a distinct lack of guidelines for one of the courses in-particular – the dedicated reading course. Being the only full-time foreign teacher at the time (it’s a very small school), and this being a course exclusively taught by the foreign staff (me), it was essentially my lone responsibility to redesign the ENTIRE fucking thing.”
“And in doing so, I found my calling.”
“What started as a reading course soon developed into a writing course as well. Every lesson I taught was aimed towards the final goal of teaching kids how to write stories of their own. It’s a process which would take years given the variety of ages and levels, but the far end has been producing some pretty decent fucking fruit.
As such, I’ve been given virtually free-reign over the whole thing to do ANYTHING I want.”
“I am the master of the reading-writing course – my own little kingdom.”
Enough about me though, let’s talk about the actual kids themselves. They’re the reason I’m doing all of this, after all…
“I generally categorise my students into one of three different types – those who are self-motivated; those whose parents force them to learn; and those who just don’t give a shit.”
“The self-motivated kids are the rarest breed of student, but they are an absolute pleasure to teach. They don’t necessarily perform the best come test-time, but they get the most out of lessons, and it shows in their attitude and personality. These are real people, just smaller. When they finish school, and leave China (as most of them aspire to), they will likely go far in life.
The second category are what I refer to as the ‘test-robots’. Whether they actually want to be in class is irrelevant – they have no choice. Their parents place such overwhelming expectations on them that their lives become an endless series of classes and extra-curricular activities (you are probably familiar with this stereotype yourself if you ever went to school with any Chinese classmates).
These poor buggers have had their childhood beaten out of them with the blunt spine of a textbook such that they have developed virtually no personality. There’s no time for play, social-development, or anything resembling creativity.
The last variety of kids are the unteachable no-hopers. They are the end-result of China’s ‘one-child policy’. As brutal as it was, the policy was ultimately successful, but it has produced an entire generation of ‘little emperors and empresses’. Coddled and adored by their (typically) large families as the future heir, they are showered with praise and affection to the point where they become monstrous little narcissistic egotists.
These hideous crotch-spawn gremlins respect nothing and no one, not even their own family. It is not uncommon to see them hurl the worst sorts of insults at their grandparents and lash out physically (and publicly) when they don’t get their own way. But the family jewel can do no wrong in the blind-eyes of his or her impotent servants. They are perfect in every way, and no one can EVER say otherwise.”
“Are you saying you’ve given up on the last category?”
I should have seen that one coming…
“Some of them I have, but each child is still an individual and deserving of a chance to prove themselves. It’s rare that I use the term ‘no-hoper’ to describe a student, but I have encountered some true monsters in my time as a teacher, and don’t get me started on their parents… on second-thought, let’s do exactly that!”
“Never underestimate the stupidity of a parent!”
typical Chinese parent
“If ever in doubt as to the cause behind a problem child, look no further than the parents.”
“Some kids are lucky enough to be raised by educated, worldly guardians who teach them proper values and respect for themselves, their peers, and their elders. I can deal with those parents, and am very happy to talk to them about their child’s progress.
Other kids evidently belong to a lineage more closely related to the common tapeworm and need to either crawl back into whatever cesspool they first emerged from, or else take themselves somewhere far away where they can’t infect those around them with the stupid-gene.”
“I thought you said every child was deserving of a chance to prove themselves…”
The Premise is using my own words against me now. It’s learning… unlike those stupid swamp-muck kids.
“You’re right again, and I of course give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s not really their fault – it’s their parents’.”
“I can only work with the clay they’ve provided me, and if the clay is shit, then don’t be surprised if the final product still smells.”
“There’s this common attitude amongst parents where they expect us to wave a magic wand and their child will miraculously speak English. These are the same parents who routinely send their kids to class without books or pencils, and who NEVER ensure their kids have done the homework which they DEMAND we give them.
When it comes to homework, I would rather not give my students any as I know how overloaded they generally are. But since I am expected to, I like to compromise and give them something which can be done in only a few minutes, even just before class starts. I also try to make it fun when I can. I once assigned homework for a class to make a list of all the healthy foods they ate during the week, being as ‘healthy food’ was the theme of the lesson.
I’ve spent countless hours trying to instill in my students a better value-system than what society evidently teaches them – help your community; protect the environment; don’t be a dick, etc. and the funny thing is that they already know it all.
I only see them once a week though, so the minute they leave the classroom they’re bombarded by all the same backwards bullshit (see above) and everything we just spent the last hour talking about is immediately contradicted.”
“When I’m up against a broken society of over a billion people, all constantly reinforcing the same childish version of what it means to be a decent human being, I’m afraid I’m doomed to fail.”
“So what keeps you going?”
“The kids do.”
“If I can provide at least a few of these kids a creative outlet (if only once a week) in which to express themselves, which many of them CERTAINLY don’t experience in their regular schools (the Chinese public-school system is a joke!), then I can return home at the end of the day with a smile on my face.
I see in these kids (the first two categories, at least) a hope for the future of their country. The mere fact that they (and/or their parents) want them to learn English shows that they’re interested in expanding their horizons overseas. English is still the most globalised language (for how much longer?), and if these kids want to use it in order to study or work abroad, then I’m proud to be involved in some (small) way.”
“That’s what keeps me going.”
“What makes YOU the teacher these kids need?”
Really Premise, you can’t leave me with my delusions of grandeur just once?
“Absolutely nothing. I’ve already admitted that I’m not the best teacher out there, I just happen to be the guy on the job. There are so many other foreigners doing the exact same job as I am, and for sure, many are far more qualified, and better at the job too, but VERY few of them actually give a shit (kinda like the country itself).
In my experience, most guys like me just want to get into the classroom, go through the motions, and earn that easy pay cheque. Most foreign teachers have given up, and I don’t blame them. The whole industry is deigned to DESTROY the spirit of the teachers.”
standard ESL guidelines
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that ‘English teachers’ in China have an above-average rate of depression. People from all over the world come here to do something different, and it KILLS them. Most don’t last the first year…
That’s not me though. I started with the right attitude and I’ve kept it (unlike most). Sure, I’ve been close to giving up from time-to-time, but I consider myself fortunate to have found a position in which I feel I can actually make a difference.”
“What sort of difference do you believe you’re making?”
“There are some sweet moments every now and then which make me feel like I’m a real teacher. It might be a student who uses a difficult word they’ve only just learnt in a way that shows they get it, or it could be a student who is madly excited to share an interesting idea or fact with the class.
Better than anything though is when a student tells me I’m WRONG and why he or she thinks so (especially when I am wrong), and then we all learn something as a result.”
“It’s moments like those which show students to be independent and conscious learners. They don’t just take my word for it because I’m the teacher, they can actually think for themselves, and it’s beautiful.”
“You’re obviously a motivated educator, but how did you get the job over other better teachers?”
Ta-da, we’ve arrived at the bitter truth of the whole god-damned system…
“I wasn’t hired due to my wealth of experience and qualifications, fuck no! While those sorts of things obviously helped, the primarily quality which makes me employable in China is my skin colour.
It’s a sad fucking truth, but that’s how it is. The entire industry rests on the premise that Chinese parents want their kids taught English by white people, and it’s TRUE!”
“Being white makes me a valuable commodity.”
“It doesn’t matter that non-white people or even non-native English speakers can do the job just as well (or better), the parents have already convinced themselves erroneously that only ‘the white man’ can teach English.”
“China is living in a different century.”
THIS is still acceptable in China
“Discriminatory attitudes aren’t just confined to the poorly educated and ignorant parents, it’s common to most of them. I once worked as a private tutor for the eldest son of wealthy upper-middle-class family. They were very nice people who enjoyed regular overseas holidays and had a deep appreciation for global culture. I often spoke to the boy’s mother (who was fluent in English) and she eventually offered me a second job to teach her youngest boy too as his current tutor was… (you guessed it) BLACK.
I was shocked to encounter such blatant discrimination from someone who SHOULD have known better, and needless to say, I didn’t accept her offer and stopped working for them shortly after.”
“If ever there was a situation where-in people needed to check their privilege, THIS IS IT!”
“I will admit to having taken advantage and played the cards I’ve been dealt, but I am aware of just how unfair it is. I earn more (a lot more) than my Chinese coworkers, who work just as hard (or harder) than I do, and I once worked with a Korean-American teacher who was hired around the same time as I and paid less for the EXACT same job.”
“Fortunately, China is slowly waking up to their misconceptions about race.”
“In no small part, this is because a lot of white English teachers are complete and utter SCUM who have no respect as guests in the country, and treat the locals like second-class citizens (a common lesson from history, perhaps). They strut about the streets like they own them and wreck havoc in the process – FUCK THEM!
The more positive side to the advancing acceptance of racial diversity in the industry is that non-white and non-native teachers are proving their worth as educators despite their struggles to just be given the chance.”
you’ll NEVER see this ad in China
“It used to be that schools would only hire white teachers from North America and Britain. As it stands now, natives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland are all common-place, and non-native and non-white teachers from other parts of the world are starting to get their foot in the door too. There’s still a long way to go though.
Even as an Australian, I have encountered parents who were concerned that my accent would be too strong for their kids to understand. In fact I knew a South African teacher who lost her job for that precise reason.
Fortunately for me though, I don’t have a heavy accent, but it is certainly interesting that some parents are aware that not all English-speakers sound the same. That may be indicative of an opening-up of sorts, even if it isn’t being expressed in a positive way just yet.”
I could go on, oh dearest reader, I really could, and I want to thank you most SINCERELY for sticking with me for so long throughout this rant of a day. It has been an exhausting trip, but I truly hope you have learned something from it all – I know I have!
More than anything, I want you to understand that China is not good, or bad. It’s a complex mess of every variable conceivable that makes a country and culture what it is.
Cultures and societies are complex, and ENDLESSLY fascinating. Don’t just take my word for it, and don’t be dissuaded by my criticisms from exploring the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (China) for yourself.
Go for it!
I assure you, it will be an adventure unlike any other. There are INCREDIBLE things to see and experience here.
how could you say no to this?
There are still so many stories to be told, both wonderful memories and dooseys alike, and I regret that I didn’t make time to tell the full story of ‘The OK Party‘ among others.
As much as I would like to go on, I fear that The Premise is running a bit thin at this point (if you don’t get that reference, please watch South Park season 7 episode 7 ‘Red Man’s Greed’ – it’s amazing!), but I hope you’ll join me for my next ranting adventure.
I also hope that you can appreciate that this is the most honest and in-depth reflection of my China-experience that I have ever had with myself (and possibly ever will have).
China, in a very real sense, has made made me the man I am today.
So thank you, China, for everything that you are, and ever will be.
Until next time,
– Empty Chair Interviews