Adventures in Chinese Media
What Others Are Saying About Dueling the
LeRoy's ability to write so cogently about such AWFUL things and
simultaneously give readers a chuckle, is magnificent.
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.
These stories from China are addictive.
Should be awarded an honorary degree in Anthropology. These
accounts are an ethnographic study.
These stories from China are always informative and eye-opening,
and I read each one with fascination.
This makes my neck hair stand on end and my tummy twitch.
Hooorrrible! "Chinese law?" Yeah right! What exactly is
Copyright 2017 Abdiel LeRoy
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Ebook cover design by Ignacio
To "Brother" Herman,
who has stood by me in my trials.
Table of Contents
Others Are Saying About Dueling the Dragon
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!
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
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
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
the end, if adventure stories contain both miracle and monster,
friend and foe, then this book can justly claim to describe an
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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!
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!
I will buy you dumplings," said Alex. He felt it was his turn to
pay after I bought him lunch last time.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
for these two girls to be writing with Shakespeare's heartbeat within
a few weeks of their first lesson plucks bright honor from the
I could have kissed each one of them there and then!
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
as one lad told his story, and we were moved to tears.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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
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
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.
so many beauties among them. If my friends could see me now!
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.
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.
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
tasted wine will value beer
Too highly, so the smut-hound, since
Neither God, hunger, thought, nor battle, must
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.
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!"
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
was a kind gesture, though I already have earplugs and they are but
poor defense against the noisy assaults of other occupants in this
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
"Do you have a girlfriend?"
"No, no girlfriend."
"Do you like babies?"
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I explained. "In music, you have a melody, a tune, like …"
started to hum Beethoven's Ode to Joy. They joined in.
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.
Do you recognize this rhythm?" I asked, clapping out the opening
to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without the melody.
got it, and began humming the tune from merely hearing the beat.
prepared the ground to introduce the heartbeat – iambic – rhythm
in English verse.
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
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.
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!
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.
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!
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."
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.
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!
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.
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
"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
"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
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?
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
entrants were beyond bad, excruciatingly, shockingly awful –
off-key, off-kilter, off-scale – yet oblivious to their own
a shitometer when you need one?!
I could not kiss her enough. I adored her.
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.
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.
awoke to find my eyes wet with the subconscious tears that had
spilled into the waking world.
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
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!
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
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.
give that back to you," I replied. "I didn't ask you to
comment about the poem, just to recite it."
she upped the ante in the next class. "We don't like poetry!"
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.
had her rephrase the statement: "I do not like poetry."
do you like prose?" I asked, thinking I could adjust her
assignment to recite prose instead.
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?"
week of anxiety, torment, and prayer, wrestling with what to do about
this student, how to "guard my heart with all diligence."13
a metaphor," I began the following week. "Anyone heard of
the phrase 'bad apple'?"
it went downhill from there, with the student in question slamming
her fist down on the desk and declaring, "China is a free
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.
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
of Englishmen's great wisdom," she wrote.
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!
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
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
And doesn't Santa's list-keeping of "whose been naughty or nice"
smack of devilish legalism?
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
the university administration has instructed me to group the majority
of percentage scores for this class in the 80s for the semester!
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."
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.
has been a godsend, an entertaining companion who reflects both the
poetic and the profane English he has heard from me!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
I was trying to get my stuff through their x-ray machine, some
Chinese people decided they would push in front.
I cried out.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
"But how I caught it,
found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is
I am to learn."
William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice
I know not where or when I contracted it, or from whom. But whatever
the source, I clearly didn't take sufficient precautions, and I am
now paying for it with a nasty infection!
thought I would get away with it, that it couldn't happen to me, that
this is the sort of thing that only happens to other people, and that
somehow I was cloaked with divine protection against my own errings.
lest you jump to the wrong conclusion, the affliction of which I
speak is worms. And they fell out in an unholy cluster yesterday!
had been experiencing digestion problems for some time. Now I know
I love the Shakespeare Insult Kit. I have seen it release great joy,
exuberance, energy, and enthusiasm among those who play with it.
Comprising two columns of adjectives and one of nouns, all taken from
the plays of Shakespeare, it provides the building blocks for some
spectacularly clever put-downs, especially with alliterative
constructions: "You Fawning, Fen-sucked, Footlicker!" for
example, or "You Misbegotten, Milk-livered, Maggot-Pie!"