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Adventures in Chinese Media and Education

Abdiel LeRoy

What Others Are Saying About Dueling the Dragon

LeRoy's ability to write so cogently about such AWFUL things and simultaneously give readers a chuckle, is magnificent.

Peter Allemano

Wields a wicked and eloquent pen. I grow more horrified with each commentary. I will never, ever attempt to get a job in China. Period. This enlightened me to no end.

Steve Seiff

These stories from China are addictive.

Dixon Chen

Should be awarded an honorary degree in Anthropology. These accounts are an ethnographic study.

Andre Knights

These stories from China are always informative and eye-opening, and I read each one with fascination.

Richard Aven

This makes my neck hair stand on end and my tummy twitch. Hooorrrible! "Chinese law?" Yeah right! What exactly is that?

Christine Heike

Copyright 2017 Abdiel LeRoy

License Notes

This book is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, resold, licensed, or publicly performed except as permitted in writing by the author. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text is an infringement of the author's rights. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient.

Ebook ISBN

Cover design by Ignacio Pessolano

To "Brother" Herman,
who has stood by me in my trials.

Table of Contents

What Others Are Saying About Dueling the Dragon



Dispatches From Chengdu

Laments From Leshan

Chidings From Changping

Briefings From Beijing

Perspectives From Peking


About the Author

Contact the Author



Looking back over these chronicles, I tingle with embarrassment sometimes – at my naiveté, overreactions, and missed opportunities. I even wonder what readers will infer about my psychological makeup at the time!

But rather than revise this book with the benefit of hindsight, I have favored giving voice to my former self as he was then. After all, Dueling the Dragon has its origins in a series of emails written to friends overseas, in which I was unfolding events more or less as they occurred. Nor have I seen a need to change anyone's name in these accounts.

I have also retained most of the original expletives, as they help to encapsulate my emotional responses at the time. I shun legalism in language as well as in life, and I am rather of Shakespeare's view that "there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so."1

In any case, I trust readers will find the language less shocking than what it is responding to. I have witnessed universities complicit in honoring exam cheats, students sold into slavery while teachers pocket the proceeds, and farmers driven off their land by unscrupulous developers. My own direct experiences include false rape charges alleged by Beijing police, and persecution at China's state-media institutions. And I have not made any of this up!

Yet, from this nation of extremes, I also hope to offer some rays of light, including romantic encounters and moments of comedy. Which brings me to the central theme of the book – reflected in the title – that China is a nation of extreme contrasts. Though magical in all cultures, the Dragon is generally regarded as a benevolent being in China and as a malevolent one in the West. In my experience, the Chinese Dragon is fully both!

Dueling the Dragon is really five books in one, each covering a distinct period. The first, Dispatches From Chengdu, starts in 2005 with my early days as a teacher in the western province of Sichuan, followed by Laments From Leshan, a nearby city in the same province. My third teaching assignment is described in Chidings From Changping, a city near Beijing.

The fourth and fifth books, Briefings From Beijing and Perspectives From Peking, respectively, center around my experiences at Chinese state-media giants China Radio International, beginning in 2007, and China Central Television,2 in 2015.

It is perhaps too much to hope that my observations about China will be prescriptive, but at least I can offer the perspective of an outsider, and sometimes it takes an outsider to observe the obvious!

In the end, if adventure stories contain both miracle and monster, friend and foe, then this book can justly claim to describe an adventure!

Abdiel LeRoy, February 2017


Dispatches From Chengdu


The floral designs on the sleeping bags seemed too pretty for military field equipment, but then again, the soldiers learning to fold them were far too lovely to be fighting any wars. I was on the campus of the Chengdu College of Film and Broadcasting, where squadrons of raven-haired beauties, clad in military camouflage, were undergoing their two weeks of compulsory military training before starting their first year at university.

Shy giggles, coy glances, and simple phrases of English greeted my declaration that "you're all doing very well!" And I was transported by their smiles alone. Were these fair damsels ever sent into battle, the mesmerized enemy would lay down their arms and raise up flags of a very different kind!

The girls here are dazzling, and I can imagine the Creator, when He fashioned the Eves of this world, must have looked with a particularly tender and gracious eye on Chengdu, which has earned the reputation, even among the Chinese, for its captivating examples of womanhood.

Speaking of Genesis, I am often charged with the sacred honor of naming the young adults around me, and have been assigning them names from Shakespeare, Scripture, mythology, and other great literature.

It's fun being an object of curiosity among the students here. Cries of "Hello!" welcome my daily walk across campus, usually followed by the pleasant harmony of giggles when I wave back with my own greeting.

Some of the girls say I'm handsome, reminding me of a line from, I think, Mutiny on the Bounty, where the island women think the English sailors "beautiful, no matter how oddly their features were arranged." Or, in the words of Shakespeare's Richard III: "Upon my life, she finds, though I cannot,/ Myself to be a marvelous proper man."3

But I have enjoyed hanging out with some of the lads too. One whom I have named James invited me to a "party" for the Moon Cake festival. It turned out to be a huge concert of theater, music, and dance. In response to their invitation that I should give a performance, I made up a solo Argentine-Tango dance, which was enthusiastically received.

The only words of English spoken during the evening were: "Long live Chairman Mao!" I find the ongoing reverence for Mao's memory hard to square with history but, if he had anything to do with putting first-year girls in military fatigues, I thank him!

Later, James told me, "my classmates very like you." I almost replied, "I very like them too!" In the end, I said something more grammatical, befitting an English teacher. Looking back, though, I like my first impulse better!


"Today, I will buy you dumplings," said Alex. He felt it was his turn to pay after I bought him lunch last time.

This from an undergraduate who recently drowned his sorrows in several beers after his girlfriend's family rejected him as a future son-in-law, on the grounds of his own family's poverty. This from a man who, in all his four years at university, could afford only two trips home to his parents' farm in Xinjiang Province.

On his last visit – after a 56-hour train ride and three bus trips – his mother gave him the only mooncake she had, in celebration of China's Mid-Autumn Festival. Mooncakes are small pastries in the shape of hockey pucks, and they come with various fillings. Here in Chengdu, I received so many as gifts that I gave some away.

By comparison with most of my students, I am greatly privileged. I have my own apartment in the Foreign Teachers' Guesthouse. It has heating and air-conditioning, a phone, fridge, TV, and internet connection. There is a washing machine downstairs. And though the pay would bankrupt me in a week by New York standards, I am fed and clothed and housed reasonably comfortably.

But most of my charges at Chengdu University of Technology – or "CDUT" – live in conditions that would incite an uprising if tried in the West. The girls sleep eight to a dormitory, they must return before 11pm, and then make it through the remainder of the night without heating, air-conditioning, or even electricity! Showers are taken communally.

They also have to pay extra for hot water. The other day, I saw students paying an entrance fee to enter a tiled enclosure, where they filled tall flasks from a row of faucets lined against the wall. "What are they doing?" I asked. "Getting hot water," my friend replied. I then watched them walk off to their dorms, carrying these heavy burdens. One student badly scalded her leg the other day when her flask broke as she was walking.

I also recently visited the accommodations of some first-year boys, their limbs peppered with mosquito stings, and saw first-hand the conditions they live in – five guys with bunk-beds, sharing a very small room with a bare concrete floor, and close enough to the toilets that the smell of urine followed me in.

So when a student buys a teacher lunch, it is no small thing. In that one gesture is summarized the spirit of warmth and generosity I have found among the youngsters here. Furthermore, when I needed an answer machine, Alex searched doggedly through the shops of Chengdu, looking for the best deal. He then took me to the store, bargained a better price, set up the phone in my apartment, interpreted the instructions, and helped me to record my outgoing message.

Now he is helping me with installing a DVD player and fixing my computer, all of which he has volunteered without the smallest expectation in return. If ever there is a place in Heaven, make way for him! In the meantime, may Heaven answer with tender mercy Alex's question: "Does God think I don't need love?"


Today, two of my students came up after class and showed me some lines of iambic poetry they had written. Had they merely written good English prose, the feat would have been astonishing enough.

In China, foreign visitors are relentlessly assaulted with bizarre arrangements of English words – symptomatic of a country growing faster than its competence. Among my favorites was a sign above a men's room saying "Toilet of Man". More recently, I came across this promotional copy from a bed manufacturer: "Whenever the time that night come, grow to have the Yalisi mattress sweet concomitant, let you fallen asleep safely in the quite night [sic]."

So for these two girls to be writing with Shakespeare's heartbeat within a few weeks of their first lesson plucks bright honor from the pale-faced moon!4 I could have kissed each one of them there and then!

Another encouragement: from time to time I have students tell of some difficult, shocking, or traumatic experience from their past, but using only the words of the nursery rhyme, Hickory Dickory Dock. It's an exercise I learnt in acting class. Today, deep called to deep5 as one lad told his story, and we were moved to tears.

He was also wearing a character mask to tell the story, one of several I brought with me from the U.S. The mask's power to reveal the inner life accords with Christ's observation that if a man will let himself be lost, he shall find his true self.6

I have also distributed small prizes, mostly postcard replicas of U.S. postage stamps celebrating the Chinese birth signs, for those who show unusual flair in the classroom. A couple of students have won bigger awards of Oscar Wilde poetry collections.

There is an element of stand-up comedy to my work here, though my Monty Python renditions were rather lost on them. And when I delivered the punchline of The Three Sisters of Baghdad, my favorite bawdy tale of The Arabian Nights, I was met with a surreal vista of blank faces.

Still, hearts are responding, and minds are catching up!


"I haven't taken a deep breath since I came here!" So said one of the other foreign teachers here the other day. Understandable. Over the campus hovers a permanent chemical shadow, seeping into the lungs like liquid cancer, the effluent of seven great chimneys dominating the skyscape.

Belching their foul-tasting vapors day and night, they recall a dismal scene from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle: "thick, oily, and black as night…one stared, waiting to see it stop, but still the great streams rolled out…stretching a black pall as far as the eye could reach."

Here, the sun is seldom visible through the haze, and every leaf of every tree is coated with a grimy film. Near to the foreign teachers' building is a construction site – one of several on campus – banging and clanging day and night, adding the dust and exhaust fumes of delivery and cement trucks to the toxic pool.

And these chemical perils are almost matched by the biological ones. On the floors of most restaurants, strewn with food and phlegm spat out by shirtless men, sits a slippery film of grease where flies and roaches feast. Meat is stored without refrigeration in plastic bags under the counters.

Meanwhile, in the dark, fast-flowing river nearby, locals and students will take a dip on a hot day while all manner of filth floats by. I even saw the carcass of a dead pig making its way downstream! As for the public toilets, you don't even want me to go there. I certainly don't!

But my sensibilities here are not shared. Recently, when I recoiled in revulsion at a roach-sighting beside our hotpot at a local restaurant, the beautiful girl beside me calmly crushed the offending bug in a tissue, cast it to the floor, and got on with her meal.

What does cleanliness mean here anyway? Why, for instance, do I see workers hand-sweeping the nearby four-lane highway with long brooms while unwrapped pig carcasses trundle by on the backs of rusty mopeds?

Despite the questionable hygiene in eating establishments, I have enjoyed some delicious food in Chengdu, not just the "hotpot" for which the area is famous, but baked yams and roasted chestnuts bought on the street. My favorite place to eat is a Moslem restaurant near the campus front gate, where they serve a huge plate of lean beef with potatoes. It comes topped with cilantro which, I gather, is a good herb for detoxing!


Child abuse comes in many forms. For Bond, one of my Chinese student friends here on campus, it was attempted strangulation by his mother when he was six months old. Catching her in the act, his father placed him in the care of Bond's paternal grandmother, who lived in the same remote village. Even so, his mother would beat Bond if she came across him outside.

Following divorce between Bond's parents, his father resolved never to marry again, for fear of what a stepmother might inflict on the boy and his younger brother.

Like many childhood traumas, details are patchy, and the motivations unfathomable. But they are part of an abusive pattern recounted by many students here, including deliberate starvations, tying up children to be left unattended, jabbing with sharp objects, and sexual exploitation.

Nor are China's education policies helping. I was shocked to learn that Chinese families have to pay for their children's education. What?! A self-declared Communist country is charging its kids to go to school? When I was growing up in England, every child could go free-of-charge to a "comprehensive" school, though England never declared itself a Communist country.

And when I went to university, the government not only paid for my tuition but supplied a modest grant to help with living expenses and supplies. What brand of Communism denies its people the right to benefits other non-Communist countries provide?

Add to that the large gender imbalance of the population, with many more boys than girls in graduating age groups, resulting from China's one-child-per-family policy, and it quickly becomes clear that the country's sociological problems run very deep. The other day, a young man at this university jumped to his death from a campus building after his girlfriend broke up with him. I am told that suicides are quite frequent here and that suicide is the country's number-one killer of young people.


Getting up early is so much easier here. Knowing my "commute" is but a short walk across campus, and that my fellow travelers are students on their way to class, I do not experience the dread that preceded early starts in New York City or London, the crush of bodies in confined spaces, and the grey, resentful faces resigned to a miserable routine.

The facilities here are poor, and so is the pay, nor is the university high on the academic pecking order, but I count myself blessed to be doing something rewarding and happy. I am igniting a passion for learning among my students and watching with delight as it fans into flame.7 This week, in response to their homework assignment to memorize four lines of English poetry, four girls together recited by turns Shakespeare's cuckoo song from Love's Labour's Lost.

And so many beauties among them. If my friends could see me now!

Among my favorite moments are the "punishments" I mete out for minor infractions, such as cellphones going off or arriving late. I bring the student to the front of the room where they can choose to do a silly face or a silly walk. And if the response is not sufficiently silly, I will clown their shy gestures and faces, which greatly amuses the remainder.

There is a wonderful energy among the students at the "broadcast college" campus, where I conduct about half my classes. Once a week, the school sends a car to ferry me there, when I get to see some rather more rural settings than those surrounding the parent university. The most ubiquitous vehicles are tricycles, some motorized but most not, usually carrying fruit or vegetables. Outside the campus are rows of little shops and eateries.

What corporate job can compare to this?


Of all men the drunkard is the foulest. The thief when he is not stealing is like another. The extortioner does not practise in the home. The murderer when he is at home can wash his hands. But the drunkard stinks and vomits in his own bed and dissolves his organs in alcohol.

Ernest Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls

As those…
Who never tasted wine will value beer
Too highly, so the smut-hound, since he knows
Neither God, hunger, thought, nor battle, must
Of course hold disproportioned views on lust.

C.S. Lewis, the poem ODORA CANUM VIS

There are a kind of people among whom beer is a social currency. I've never liked it, but beer is the lubricant of choice among many of the foreign teachers here, a largely Australian contingent. Along with drinking at all hours in the neighboring flats, they play loud music and sustain a nightly cacophony of shouting, slamming, and banging.

Moreover, my polite requests they be aware others are trying to sleep are met with such witty ripostes as "get fucked" or "don't accuse me of being a fucking criminal!"

Meanwhile, I've found closer community with the North American foreign teachers: Don, who has helped me to adjust to life in China; Henry, who has turned out to be a dedicated and faithful yoga partner; Vivian, who has been a good neighbor with her practical helps; and Mary, who came to my room with earplugs on learning of my distress about lack of sleep.

It was a kind gesture, though I already have earplugs and they are but poor defense against the noisy assaults of other occupants in this reverberate building.

The unreliable internet connection here, the frequent power blackouts, the occasional lack of hot water, and inadequate laundry facilities I can deal with, but to Hell with this brotherhood of beer!


This week, I got a call from the university administration. Apparently, some students in one of my classes complained it was too hard for them to memorize English poetry for homework. And now the administration is calling on me to set "easier tasks."

Bollocks! Mnemosyne, the goddess of Memory, is mother of all the muses, and I am helping students to build a treasury of the mind. Furthermore, most of my students have already handed me their lists of memorized verse.

I told the administration I would consider their request, but find I can not agree to this. After sharing my response with the class, I received a couple of e-mails from them (unedited):

"In my opinion, although I'm not always understand you meanings, I like making me busy and enrich. And I think we will learn more from you. so I think we should thank you, you give another world, and you did very well.

"I hope you won't be sad of what the administrant said to you. As you say that's not the majority's point. Simon and I both think you are a very good teacher, and you have strong responsibility to all of us. Your enthusiasm, humor, profoundness and kindness attract us so much.

"One more thing I want to thank you is that I can recite two sonnets now (actually I can recite them two weeks ago). All of this is from your efforts. And Simon will bring you a tape, hoping you can read some sonnets to us. Thank you once again.



Chinese is a fiendishly difficult language. Not only do otherwise identical syllables have completely different meanings according to which of the four "tones" are used in pronouncing them, but even identical syllables with identical tones can have different meanings too!

Reading, of course, is even harder, because it means identifying Chinese characters, of which there are tens of thousands, the vast majority a blurry mass of tiny squiggles that swim before my eyes in dizzying confusion. China has developed a set of "simple" characters as an alternative to the "complex" ones still used in Taiwan, but really the choice is between "complex" and "more complex".

Nevertheless, I am making progress with reading some Chinese poetry, assisted by a fourth-year student, Hazel, who records it on to tape, translates the Chinese characters into Pinyin – a transcription system that uses letters of the Western alphabet – and helps me to understand their meaning.

I met her on a bus that ferries students and teachers between campus and the nearby Carrefour shopping center. She is one of several students who have come to my rescue when I needed to buy things, although the reply from shopkeepers is usually the same: "méiyŏu," literally meaning "not have."


Like Tennyson's Maud, Jennifer is "tall and stately." From Xinjiang Province in the north of China, she stands out from the shorter local girls of Chengdu. And she has brains to match her beauty, loving as she does works of English literature I count among my favorites, such as Wind in the Willows or Oscar Wilde's The Nightingale and the Rose.

I met her at English Corner, where dozens of eager students form clusters around a few foreign teachers and ask about anything and everything. I especially enjoyed the following conversation with one of the girls.

Student: "Do you have a girlfriend?"

Me: "No, no girlfriend."

Student: "Do you like babies?"

We had a good laugh about that. The night I met Jennifer, it started to rain, and she shared an umbrella with me as we carried my teaching materials back.

Alas, she has a boyfriend, but there was compensation a few days later, when she visited with four of her dorm-mates. They are an example of those loving sisterhoods Chinese girls form with each other. I often see them walking hand-in-hand across campus in lines of two, three, four, or even five.

The familial bonds established between students, among the boys too, is apparent from the terms of affection used: "mèimei" (little sister), "jiĕjie" (big sister), "dìdi" (little brother), and "gēge" (big brother). My dear friend Alex, now in his fourth and final year, is known as "dà shū," meaning "Big Uncle," for his capacity in caring for others.

Finding a partner tall enough for Argentine Tango was a challenge, but last week I spied a lovely girl near the north campus who is a perfect height. I named her Helen, and our first practice session was very encouraging. Also ranking among the towering graces is the stunning Sharon from Shanghai.

As for my student, Joanna, I had glimpsed her beauty but vaguely until she invited me to her group dance performance, in which she was wearing a boob top and skin-tight stretchpants. Now she is my partner for Jive dancing.

Catherine is another cutie, her radiant smile alternating with looks of bemusement, head tilted to one side, as she ponders something. In the words of Charles Dickens: "The changing expression of sweetness and good humour, the thousand lights that played about her face, and left no shadow there; above all, the smile, the cheerful, happy smile, were made for Home, and fireside peace and happiness."8

I met Nicole, who attends another university in Chengdu, while she was running a coffee stand near the city center, and we have got together a few times since. Adding to the allure of her gorgeous raven-black hair is the natural pout of her lips.

Beauty runs especially deep at the broadcast college. Gina, with her large eyes and dimpled cheeks, is breathtaking; the tall Emily, with her angular and striking features, a dream; and another Catherine, her eyes like almonds in a sea of milk, a sculptor's desire.

Here is beauty in infinite variety.


I had an in-the-zone teaching moment today. I wrote some lines of verse on the blackboard and asked the students what the rhythm was. No answer. "Rhythm?" I asked. "You know what that word means?" No answer.

"Ok," I explained. "In music, you have a melody, a tune, like …"

I started to hum Beethoven's Ode to Joy. They joined in.

Then I sang the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth. Again, they joined in. "OK," I said. "This music has a rhythm," which I then proceeded to clap out.

"Now. Do you recognize this rhythm?" I asked, clapping out the opening to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without the melody.

They got it, and began humming the tune from merely hearing the beat.

This prepared the ground to introduce the heartbeat – iambic – rhythm in English verse.

We went on to sing "London's Burning" in a four-part round.


Even though it is now mid-November, mosquitoes still swarm on the campus, and lately I have been awoken in the middle of the night by their stings, in spite of my best efforts with insect repellent and vapor devices.

Last night, one got me at 4am, and there was no point trying to sleep again, because I had to be up at 5.30 anyway for a whole day of teaching at the broadcast college.

But the car never showed up. I called the assistant, who told me I was not teaching there any more. I checked my e-mail. There was a message from a student, sent the previous day, asking why I was no longer teaching them! So the students knew before I did!

All my preparatory labors were wasted – planning class content, assembling materials for the day, e-mailing files to the students, updating student contact information and assessments, recording tapes of poetry and literature for students who had requested them, reworking poetry some had written, and agonizing about how to deal with one student who had been trying to disrupt class.

On top of that, I had printed great quantities of handouts at my own expense, collated them, and stapled them, because the university does not provide printers for the students to use on campus, and the administration had earlier complained about the amount of ink used in printing out my previous materials!

So all I have invested, all that groundbreaking work to lay the foundations of inspiration, are for naught. And I had prepared so much more to give as well. Yet the assistant informed me that such behavior is "normal at our university."

The only upside to this debacle is that I can now get better rest. The extra hours at CDUT's sister broadcasting college not only exceeded the contractual maximum, but required two road trips a week, each leg lasting up to an hour and half.

I had tried staying at the broadcast college one night per week to cut down on the traveling, but was put in a noisy concrete cell, complete with steel door and barred peephole, with neither heat for cold nights nor air-conditioning for hot ones, a bunk bed that was too short, bed linen that stank of mold, a hole in the floor for a toilet, and, to top it all, swarming with mosquitoes! I got one hour of very uncomfortable sleep that night before disco music started blaring from the campus radio station at 6.30 in the morning!

I still have my students at the main campus, but now I have lost the group with whom I felt the closest affinity. I managed to send an e-mail to most of them explaining I had not abandoned them and that my absence was due to circumstances beyond my control.

And the response has been extremely supportive, with messages from at least 16 students, some of which I reproduce below:

"I am crying now. I am very sad that you can not teach us in the future. I like you and I will always miss you."

"We all miss you very much, and we hope you can keep touch with us as well. We are friends, nothing can change it. God bless us."

"Today I heard the news you would not teach us any more? I was so puzzled. We all thought your teaching was so good, and we have learned so much about Shakespeare."

"I'm very disappointed to get this news. Everyone knows that you a good teacher, and the college cheats us. But you know, the college can't stop us missing you."

"Last Thursday, when we heard the news, we were all shocked! We all still think that you are a crackerjack teacher! Thank you what you have done for us!!!"

"All of us are missing you, hope you can come back to teach us, we do not understand the actions of our school."

"Thanks for teaching me, I won't forget you in the future. You are a very kind person. What a pity that you can't teach me. All of the students love you very much. Best wishes to you! I am your student forever!"

"I didn't know how to say my feeling. Of course, so sad. I like your class. And now, I mostly don't go to class any more. You are the best teacher in my opinion. I can't believe our university will do this."

"I am so confused with what our school did to you!!!!! It was unfair. What happened??? We all like you very much, you are humorous, handsome, did a lot for us. We all know that you love us very much, and we love you so much, still remember the silly dancing, silly singing, it still can touch my heart when I think of you."

"We are glad you were our teacher. We can learn lots of things that are very important and useful to us. For example, learning foreign culture, seeing great films, dancing, and so on. We all think you are a great teacher."

"When I see the materials that you give us, I am very touched. You still consider us your students. From these things, I can see you are very responsible teacher, which is very rare."

Damn this college administration for their stupidity, blindness, and ignorance!


Now, concerning virgins,…

1 Corinthians 7:25

A night of restless squirming with a virgin, as she remained ensconced behind the cotton wall of her panties. She was not required to sign the guest book as we came in last night, and left this morning with her maidenhood intact. I don't know whether to be disappointed by this outcome or relieved, for my inclinations are toward another – an apple of my eye that needs no other cherry!


Today at lunch, I was introduced to a girl who is about to graduate in English after four years at university. Yet she could not understand even my simplest and slowest sentences! What is wrong with the education system in this country that is outwardly so hungry to improve the English skills of its populace while it accommodates students like this?

And in a textbook shown me by a second-year English major, the chapter headings alone – such as "Past Participle Predicatives", "Sentences of Unreal Condition", and "The Present Participle as Attributive Modifier" – are enough to put anyone off learning English for life! "Sharp of eye, yet how dull of vision!" to quote the famed actress Ellen Terry when she was talking about critics.

I have also learned from conversations with students how, by imposing relentless batteries of tests on children from an early age, the system stifles rather than stimulates discovery.

But it just got worse! Earlier this week, the head of the Foreign Language Department called in seven of us foreign teachers for a meeting. Even while he was encouraging us to talk about Western culture, he instructed us not to use the Bible in our classes!

Bollocks again! The Bible is a key foundation of our language – a treasury of poem, parable, and prophecy – AND of our culture! Can he really be that stupid? Give me a break!


Of 12 contestants, maybe three could hold a tune. And only one was truly gifted.

But she did not win the English Song Competition that I was helping to host at CDUT. Instead, the prize went to a denizen of discord who would do better to confine his misplaced melodies to karaoke rooms peopled with long-suffering friends practiced in the art of unconditional love, than to amplify his artlessness to a packed auditorium!

Tuneless, talentless, and tempo-less, the contestants shrieked, wailed, and warbled through rock songs, murdering such classics as Hey Jude, and deeply offending the memory of The Carpenters.

The entrants were beyond bad, excruciatingly, shockingly awful – off-key, off-kilter, off-scale – yet oblivious to their own inadequacies.

Where's a shitometer when you need one?!


I could not kiss her enough. I adored her.

"You love me more, because you kiss me more!" she said teasingly as we embraced. And we both laughed as I hugged her again. I was squatting down to be at her level, and I kissed her again on the cheek several times in rapid succession.

Then I stood up, lifting her off the ground with me, and holding her tightly in my arms. I wept. For she was leaving, with her mother. And I felt the pangs of losing them both as I set her down again and they started to go. "How can I love so completely this little girl?" I asked myself, as I watched them depart.

I awoke to find my eyes wet with the subconscious tears that had spilled into the waking world.

I know the mother, and this is the second time I have dreamed about her this week. She is Yan, my ex, now living in New York. Perhaps the little girl represents the future we will not have.


Ungrateful bastards! Some in the postgraduate class are complaining that I'm treating them like children because I have them occasionally put on theatrical masks. They say they are not actors, that they feel embarrassed, that this is not in their "culture", yet howl in protest when I assign them a low score on class participation as a result.

I have come to China, to the other side of the world, an enormous risk. Yet I encounter some students here who are not even willing to venture a toe in the water with this new experience! It's sad, and pathetic. And it's a lie. Chinese culture embraces the theatrical mask at least as much as Western culture!

What a stark contrast with the ebullience and joy that surged from the first-year students at the broadcast college. Were these postgrads similarly enthused when they set out on their university education? And did the college system snuff out every spark of curiosity amid this "dross of indifference"?9

Thus my good seed falls in rocky places, among hearts of stone, among the thorns of denial,10 even of learning more about themselves. I am unequally yoked.11 Why cast my pearls before these swine?12


There is an ill wind blowing through that postgraduate class. "Poets are crazy!" one of them asserted when about to undertake her assignment of reciting a poem.

"I give that back to you," I replied. "I didn't ask you to comment about the poem, just to recite it."

Then she upped the ante in the next class. "We don't like poetry!" she declared.

Now, I can deal with someone saying "I don't like poetry." You're missing out, but hey, that's up to you. It's the presumption of speaking for the rest of the class that I find so galling.

I had her rephrase the statement: "I do not like poetry."

"So do you like prose?" I asked, thinking I could adjust her assignment to recite prose instead.

"No!" she answered.

"So you don't like prose and you don't like poetry. That means you don't like language. Why have you devoted six years of your life to a subject you don't like?"

No answer.

A week of anxiety, torment, and prayer, wrestling with what to do about this student, how to "guard my heart with all diligence."13

"Here's a metaphor," I began the following week. "Anyone heard of the phrase 'bad apple'?"

And it went downhill from there, with the student in question slamming her fist down on the desk and declaring, "China is a free country!"

This episode resulted in some earnest conversations with the university's HR office and an agreement that I and this postgraduate class would part company after the semester.


I stifled my laugh as Cindy handed in her exam paper. The time limit had not yet expired, and other students in this undergraduate class were still at work. Besides, I didn't want anyone to interpret my merriment as laughing at Cindy, instead of with her.

The question was: "Why does the English language have such a rich vocabulary?" I was looking for an answer outlining its Latin and Germanic roots. But I had to give Cindy a point for sheer audacious flattery:

"Because of Englishmen's great wisdom," she wrote.

Among the other amusing responses to this question, a couple of candidates attributed the richness of vocabulary to the 26 letters of the alphabet. Nice try!

In answers to other questions, the parents of the Muses (Zeus and Mnemosyne) were described as "their father and mother"; two sons of Priam were "Paris and his brother"; and the angel that leads the rebellion against God in Paradise Lost was "Santa."

Upon reflection, I gave half marks for that answer. After all, it is an anagram of the correct one, and the devil does masquerade as an angel of righteousness.14 And doesn't Santa's list-keeping of "whose been naughty or nice" smack of devilish legalism?

Fair play to my students!


I remember an episode from my school days in which I copied my neighbor's test answers, thinking him better informed than I was. Usually, that was the case; he was known as the class "swot". But on this occasion, my trust was misplaced, for he had not prepared any better than I.

The following week, the teacher, noticing we had the same wrong answers, wrote "COPY!" on our papers. A number of other pairs of students had received the same comment. Well, I guess that sort of thing goes on among 10-year-olds.

But among postgraduate students? It is one in the morning, and I am so stunned by what I have just seen in these final exam papers, that I am unable to sleep. I was not overseeing the exam itself, so I don't know how they communicated with each other, but the patterns of identical incorrect answers, identical incorrect spellings, and identical answers to open-ended questions leave no doubt that cheating was rife. They even suggest connivance by the invigilating teacher!

I was at first pleasantly surprised by the answers of one girl whose work during the semester had been especially uninspiring. But now I know she was leaning on a more accomplished student, and wasn't even smart enough to disguise what she had been up to!

And this from a group of students who complained I treated them like children! Turns out I credited them with more maturity than they deserve! I have assigned zero scores to the definite cheaters while giving the benefit of the doubt to the ones I merely suspect.

Yet the university administration has instructed me to group the majority of percentage scores for this class in the 80s for the semester!

I'm told by Chinese friends that cheating is rife in the Chinese education system, that students sometimes pay great sums to have exam answers fed to them via text messages or tiny earphones, and some will even appoint a substitute to sit for them under a false identity. My dearest friend Alex informs me he has turned down several lucrative offers to serve as an exam proxy. Even scholarships are won illicitly, he tells me, meaning that "the people who really need them don't get them."

Of course, all this means that candidates are leaving college to build careers on a foundation of sand. I heard the other day that multinational corporations in China find only 10% of the country's university graduates have English skills adequate to work for them. Having observed so many getting certification beyond their accomplishments, I am not surprised!


And so to my first Christmas in China. I spent the day with dear friends Alex and Sharon, first at a potluck lunch put together by the foreign teachers then at a Peking duck restaurant for dinner with another Chinese friend, Vivien.

Alex has been a godsend, an entertaining companion who reflects both the poetic and the profane English he has heard from me!

Tomorrow, we're off to another restaurant for a Western-style Christmas dinner with my pretty friend, Nicole. Last week, I accepted an invitation to guest teach at her English class at another university in Chengdu. I talked about Christmas in England and shared a brief excerpt from my Wind in the Willows one-man show.

I have received some very thoughtful gifts and messages from students, too. Phoebe gave me a mask of the Monkey King from the famous Chinese tale, Journey to the West. In her card, she wrote:

You arrived in Chengdu, met us, and then became our foreign teacher. I regard it as my honour to be your student.

It's you who have shown me the beauty of English and English poems, which I never found before. You have really opened a door for me to the fascinating English world.

At this moment, I want to show you my gratitude by this little card and say 'Thank you!' from the bottom of my heart.

Another student presented me with a gorgeous painting from Yunnan Province, and two others gave me scarves they had knitted by hand!

At the close of Christmas Day, I enjoyed a delicious Christmas cake made by one of the foreign teachers. He and I have not been on speaking terms for much of the semester, but I shall write him a thank-you note now. Peace and Goodwill to all men, and all of that.


It's called "guānxi" – meaning "connection" or "relationship," but often used as a euphemism for graft and corruption. Today, having spent a couple of hours in the Chengdu customs office filling out forms and listening to Alex wrestle with the bureaucracy in Chinese, I came face-to-face with it.

The officials have levied an "administrative fee" for me to get my FedEx package. It entitles me to come back the following day to pick up some papers, so that I can take them away and get them stamped and bring them back. Then I must deliver those papers to FedEx myself, so that FedEx can move my package from the customs office in the southern city of Shenzhen.

I looked at the staff in this office. They're all supposed to speak English, but none do. Rather, these guānxi-drenched individuals devote their days to reading newspapers, playing computer games, smoking, and chatting.

And when I returned to pick up the papers the following day – after another hour-long bus ride – they said they weren't ready because they'd had a meeting that day. Try again tomorrow. I checked my package status online. For several days now, it has read: "Regulatory agency clearance delay." No shit!

Finally, after three visits to the customs office, I received the sacred document, handed over another fee, and watched the official put it straight in his pocket! Another week has since gone by, and still no word on the status or delivery date.


My recent hassles with Chinese customs recall my struggles even getting here in the first place. It began with missing my connection in Beijing, because the Air China flight left Kennedy Airport two hours late. So I had to spend the night in Beijing.

And so did all my luggage. Having dragged it all to the Air China desk, they would not let me check it in for the next day's flight. I was turned away from one overnight storage facility at the airport because they were closing, but managed to find another still open, which I would have to pay for myself.

As I was trying to get my stuff through their x-ray machine, some Chinese people decided they would push in front.

"Fuck!" I cried out.

It seemed to do the trick, and I finally got my stuff stowed. After a taxi ride, I was allotted to a hotel room that I had to share with a stranger. The following day, despite the absence of a scheduled wake-up call, I made it back to the airport and retrieved my luggage.

I returned to the Air China counter, where they attempted to levy against me another excess baggage fee for the remainder of my journey to Chengdu, on top of the fee I had already paid in New York. Only the intervention of a supervisor averted this additional costly blow.

Some friends have dubbed me an "international man of mystery," but the reality's not as glamorous as it sounds!


The university has decided to fire me. They accuse me of teaching "religion" and of being unsatisfactory according to teachers at the broadcast college. And they are proposing to do this without meeting their obligations in the contract, first to issue a warning and also to pay a breach fee.

Meanwhile, students at the broadcast college inform me they are refusing to continue their classes with the teachers brought in to replace me. Popular with the students; unpopular with the teachers? I wonder why!

But all of this is very old news, anyway. It is the timing of the administration's move that is perhaps most telling, coming one day after I sent in the postgraduate student scores.

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