Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

It’s Been a Funny Old National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

March 21, 2012 Leave a comment

The Internet is almost inaccessible, dissidents, writers, bloggers and activists are “disappeared” – bundled off to black jails to be tortured, and an apparently unending stream of armed troops descend on restive regions of the country.  No, it’s not a dystopian vision of the future, it just means that the NPC/CPPCC is in town.  Referred to as The Two Meetings, this the place were Five Year Plans are approved, the Beijing Police do their best to outwit foreigners and prevent them from getting up to anything subversive, like filming and taking photos.  And of course, there was the Bo Xi Lai Thing.

The drama that has been playing out since February starring Bo Xi Lai and Wng Li Jun was never really going to end happily.  Something of a mix between Nero and Warren G. Harding, Bo managed to economically cripple Chongqing, spending huge amounts of money importing ginkgo trees, and supporting the local satellite TV station.  Subsidizing the TV shows took at least 50% of the budget, and importing the ginkgoes (and watching them promptly die off in the unsuitable soil and climate) cost something in the region of 10% of the annual government budget.  Things came to boil when the head of the local PSB, Wang Li Jun spent the night at the local US Embassy, sparking rumours that he was ready to defect, and had amassed a documents that proved the connection between Bo and his dodgy deals with a local property tycoon Weng Zhenjie.

About a month later, The Two Meetings hit full tilt boogie, but Bo Xi Lai was the only member of the 25-strong ruling Politburo not to attend one of the first high-level sit-downs.  Later, towards the end of the gathering, Wen Jia Bao roundly rejected Bo Maoist efforts to force people to sing “Red Songs”, saying that “Reform has reached a critical stage. Without successful political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform and the gains we have made in this area may be lost.  The new problems that have cropped up in China’s society will not be fundamentally resolved, and such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution may happen again.”

The day after, news broke that Bo Xi Lai has been removed of his government post.  But it didn’t end there.  The week after his removal from the Politburo, unconfirmed reports now suggest that Bo has been placed under house arrest, and that he attempt to block a criminal investigation centered on his wife.

Little more than a rubber stamp parliament, the 2012 NPC saw several new toothless laws were passed, including one that addressed the problem of illegal detentions by the police.  Reforms to the Criminal Procedure Law were, at least on paper, intended to give citizens more protection and reduce the powers of the police.  That was the theory anyway, closer inspection reveals that while the law requires the police to notify the detainee’s relatives, it doesn’t require them to tell the relatives where the detainee is being held, as well as giving the police powers to deny the suspect access to a lawyer, and if the police deem that informing relatives of the arrest could impede the investigation, then they don’t need to do it.

It was only 50 years ago that the first few National People’s Congress was performed to a select few, and behind closed doors.  In 2012, enterprising young Weibo members are combing through hi-res images taken in the conference hall to find out who’s sleeping, texting and gaming their way through the proceedings. This year’s NPC/CPPCC has been particularly entertaining, if not for the fact the while The Two Meetings were going on, air quality improved as clampdowns on car usage and making sure that while the politicians were in town, the factories toed the pollution line. This year we’ve had Tibetan representatives fleeing in terror at the sight of a foreign correspondent, the ongoing, epic saga charting the eventual downfall of Bo Xi Lai and Wang Li Jun that made Dr. Zhivago pale in comparison.

Show Me The Way to Go Home

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Christmas has come and gone, and Chinese men, women and children have celebrated this most western of festivals by doing what they do best – eating a lot and buying stuff. Christmas is especially popular in the cities of China, mostly because Chinese city-dwellers like to show off how cosmopolitan they are, and, essentially, that Chinese people are always fascinated by something that they’ve never seen before – a virgin.

The Chinese, being Chinese, have cherry picked the bits that they like best from this most western of tradition and turned into something that they can grasp and understand fully: taking the gift-giving and turning it into another excuse to go shopping. Thankfully, I’m not around to see this desecration of a holy tradition, and like many other, my thoughts turn to heading back home to spend time with the family. Unfortunately, since I’d been away from home for over 2 years (preceeded by a three and a half year absence) the re-entry shock hit me pretty hard.

One of of the things about progress is that you don’t really notice it. Things sneak up on you, and before you know it, it’s normal. Big Things happen when they happen overnight and general elections, but by and large, nothing worth noticing happens fast – language learning, weight loss (two of my favorites) and, of course, the swing in changes from one year to another in your home country that you haven’t visited for a while. In my case, almost two years. People don’t really know how to treat me, it’s kinda like having come out of a coma without the horrific head injuries or cool scars to show the girls.

To whit, here’s a brief rundown of what the UK is all about:

  • Everything must be cheap. People still think that the British economy is on the brink of destruction that will cause tea supplies to falter, cats and dogs to live together in harmony and the thunder of the hooves of the four horsemen to be heard galloping down the high street as the apocalypse approaches.
  • Everything must be low fat. I have the unenviable position of being able to watch infinite amounts of daytime TV, which is punctuated by almost infinite amounts of daytime TV advertising, and the general trend is that it’s alright to sell something that can kill you so long as it’s low in fat and can aid weight loss as a part of a low calorie breakfast.
  • Everyone is suing each other. Half the traders at Zhong Guan Cun would be out of business if mis-selling something was grounds for taking someone to court. Right now, the big thing seems to be PPI, the mis-selling thereof. I can’t actually tell you what PPI means or why you should care about it because the moment that I type in “mis-sold PPI” into Google, I’m inundated with ads, pumped-up click-through links and other nonsensica that I have to plough through in order to tell you what PPI means, and I’m just not that interested in it.
  • Good British TV ended around the time I was 13. It’s sad, but true. Digital TV, and, indeed digital radio has permeated even the remote village that I call home, and since there are 37 channels to choose from now, there are approximately 13,755 reruns of shows to choose from. I was 13 and we had four channels to choose from, and most of those consisted of re-runs and the occasional good show on ITV on Sunday night starting at 9pm.  The good news is that most of these shows are on on the new digital channels around 1:30 in the afternoon, so I can catch up with the just after I get up, and start my day with a good Poirot mystery or a even get treated to a Cheers/Scrubs double-bill at around 3pm.
  • Everyone talks about minor events in major terms. Eloquence seems to be a thing of the past, and expressing yourself in terms of getting drunk and yelling a lot is the norm.

Sounds a lot like China.

While I’m not really lamenting the dumbing down of the British media (I was doing that long before I left for China), I am lamenting how similar it’s become to Chinese TV, which given the quality of Chinese TV, is a particularly damning statement to make. It’s kinda’s f*cking terrifying to think that if my Chinese was good enough, what I watch on UK TV would be almost the same dross that I see when I turn on the box here (I’m looking in your direction China’s Got Talent).

I’ve been contemplating leaving China on a permanent basis, mostly because learning Chinese and teaching English are pretty much the only skills that I have, and at any one day of the week, I get sick and tire of one of them, but after being involved in a road rage incident a mere 20 minutes after leaving Manchester Airport car park, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be staying in the Middle Kindgom for a long time to come yet.

Sorry about that.

Categories: Commentary, Travel

Five Simple Rules for Learning my Language

March 17, 2011 3 comments

The British comedian Tony Hawks in an episode of the BBC’s “Grumpy Old Men” told of his revolutionary new diet plan.  One Day One, you eat less and get more exercise.  On Day Two, you eat less and get more exercise.  One Day Three, you eat less and get more exercise, but on Day Four, you do something really exciting:  You get more exercise and eat less.

The number one question I get asked is “how can I improve my English?” Like a lot of things, it’s not really about getting the right answer, it’s all about asking the right question.  “How can I improve my English?” is one of those questions that is often answered with the simple, and rather uninteresting “speak more”.

It is entirely possible to learn English (or any language for that matter) in a very short space of time; you just need the right tools.  And by “the right tools”, I don’t mean “a good teacher”.  There are a number of roadblocks for Chinese students that must be overcome in order to obtain proficiency in a foreign language – in the vast majority of cases, this means learning English.

The first step is to set a goal.  “Speak English well” is not really a goal, whereas, “I aim to achieve a level 8 on the IELTS exam” is a goal.  When I first started learning to read and write Chinese in 2009, the best advice that anyone gave me was from my Chinese textbook – write the date at the top of every page.  Then, six months down the line, you’ll be able to see how your writing has progressed from the uncertain scratches in the front of the notebook, to the more practiced strokes of someone who is getting somewhere in their studies.

Using an outside system of measuring is essential because, basically, your own perception of learning isn’t a really good way of determining if you have improved or not.  Intermediate English students regularly complain to me that they feel their English isn’t improving, but they are basing their level of learning on their past experiences of learning lots of things three or four months ago when they were at a beginner level or pre-intermediate level.  Even worse, some of them will compare themselves halfway through a course to an advanced student, or even a native speaker, and find themselves demoralized that no matter how much work they put in, they can never quite get to the level that will satisfy their own, ever changing measuring stick on how good their English fluency is.

So the first rule is: Don’t trust yourself to measure your own successes and always set realistic goals.

You can never trust yourself to measure yourself.  Lying on the sofa suffering from a hangover after a New Year’s Eve party can make you feel pretty awful, but you are not seriously sick, and certainly don’t need to visit a doctor.  Your own perceptions of yourself are skewed, depending on the time of day, whether you are hungry or not, or how much sleep you go the previous night.  Don’t trust yourself to guess how good or bad you are at something, because you’ll almost always feel bad.

If you want to learn to swim, go swimming.  If you want to learn to drive, go drive a car.  If you want to learn to speak another language, then you have to go and speak that language.  Western language learning systems, and their respective companies have known this for years.  Rosetta Stone is a system of listening-based matching activities.  The Pimsleur Method is only available on CD and contains no written material at all.  Michel Thomas goes even further and tells students outright that under no circumstances should they ever take notes during a class.  Reading and writing something employs different parts of the brain than speaking a listening.  Writing things down means that your brain tells your fingers which position to hold a pen in, while speaking requires your brain to co-ordinate different sets of muscles in your throat and your mouth to make the right sounds.  Logically, they are completely different parts of the body, and they’re completely different parts of the brain.  Writing everything down (in case you forget) is pointless because, well, you will forget exactly because you wrote it down.  If you’re just going to go to a class and write things down, it’s a waste of your time and money and you may as well give up because reading and writing won’t help your speaking a listening skills.

Rule 2: Don’t write everything down.  If you forget something, listen again (ask your teacher, replay the CD, etc)

Chinese students get too hung up on the teacher.  Students who have never been near a school since they graduated from university years before think that they are good judges of what is a good teacher or not.  This is complete a total rubbish, and allows the student to display an amazing amount of contempt and arrogance towards their teacher.  Students are no better judges of their teacher in the same way that soldiers are not good judges of what makes an effective drill sergeant in the army.   A teacher needs to follow only one – he must speak less than the students.  If your teacher is speaking too much, and isn’t letting you speak, you need to complain, or you need to find another teacher.

The teacher is never a good as the materials, and before you sign any contract or hand over any money, you should ask to see all the materials that you will be learning from.  Demand to sit in on a class, or arrange a demo class.  The best type of school is the type of school that will allow successful students to continue on to the higher level classes, and keep back failing students – essentially they fire underperforming students from the class.  The class can only go as fast as the worst student, and one beginner in an advanced class can ruin the whole learning experience for everyone.

Rule Number Three is: Be critical of your teacher and materials, expect failing students to repeat classes, and make sure to see any and all materials that you’ll be learning from.

When I started working at Wall Street Institute a few years ago, a large American man called Charlie who had moved from Dubai with his wife to relocate to China told me a rather incredulous story that a rich Arab had wandered into the center of which he was the manager, and after sitting through the sales pitch, quite politely asked, “so you just download English into my brain?”  Four years, later, I still can’t decide if I’m stunned at his ignorance that a language can be learned this way, or that he was willing to have the surgery to have a USB socket implanted in his brain.  The point is that language learned cannot simply be a passive process.  If you look at children in the playground, they don’t speak because they have to, they speak because they can.

I can still remember when I reached what I call “The Playground Milestone” because I could finally tell people in China what they looked like and what they sounded like.  I took great pleasure in telling people they looked like a whale, or that they smelled like a monkey.  Hugely offensive, of course, but it gave me important practice in what is an essential part of language.   The point wasn’t that people really did sound like frogs but that I was taking the language apart in my mouth and my brain and placing it in that “sweet spot” that enables me to quickly and fluently withdraw and deposit words from and to my long term language memory and produce the sound accurately.  An active learning process means that you are able to guess what a word or phrase means based on the context and any other cues (sounds, wild gesturing by the teacher, bizarre graffiti on the whiteboard).

Rule 4: Get involved, engage your brain and start thinking, try to make your own grammar rules based on observation and repetition.

Over the weekend and Advanced student took a pre-intermediate class.  She didn’t really need to be in the class, and she could effectively communicate in English with me on a variety of different topics.  Her English was a little ropey, but for someone who had almost exclusively learned from books her entire life, she had pretty good speaking and listening skills.  In the class, she asked quite possibly the most pointless and idiotic question that I’ve ever heard from a student of her ability: “Is, ‘do you married?’ ok?”  The poor teacher tasked with leading the class had to stand around and patiently explain exactly why it was wrong.  Which is where we come to Rule 5: Don’t use the classroom as a crutch.

Chinese students essentially want to be told that their English is great.  Having said, everyone wants to be told that their second language ability is great.  It’s only when you get out of the classroom and start talking to people that you realize one important thing: You don’t know shit.  Suddenly, you are grasping for words, trying to keep up with what they are saying, you don’t understand much and you fall silent as your pathetically small vocabulary fails you in almost every respect.  Back in the classroom, you get all the answers right and you feel great.  One of the reasons that Rosetta Stone is such a great success is that once you mechanically learn all the right responses, you get 96% on almost every level.  You have great grammar, wonderful pronunciation and you can recall each and every word perfectly.

Your brain needs to be strained and tested and put through a trial by fire to truly get to the level where you can converse naturally with a high level of fluency with native speakers in another language.  It’s only when you start having to donate a lot of energy to decoding and recoding foreign words that you really get to the point where you’re not talking to someone, but talking with someone.

Don’t Get Angry, Get Embarrassed.

March 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been to America once, and God love it (which I’m told He does) I do want to live there and would spend many happy days in Maspeth, where I stayed courtesy of my friends Dan and Zoe, and watch the evening sky, at first blood red, then cool through the infrared spectrum to a dark, velvet, Guinness black.  The Manhatten skyline – still something that you can’t quite think “men made that” – of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State and the Brooklyn Bridge would be mere silhouettes that melt into the blackness of the night sky.  All of the Disneyesque poeticism pulls into stark contrast the Stephen King nightmare that is dealing with American airlines and American Homeland Security.

My time in America was a fantastic experience bookended by simply the worst travel experience known to humanity.  An experience that would make cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse feel loved.  Rarely have I been made to feel like a criminal in any airport in the world.  Even at Osaka airport, where I was fingerprinted, photographed, medically examined for fear of carrying H1N1 into the country and subject to intense investigation (I was the only foreigner with the documents that supported a one year work permit in the country), I was made to feel at home, wanted and looked after.  The elderly airport official who said “please” about 30 times in the first 10 minutes was polite, knew his stuff, and stood next to me like the grandfather I barely knew as I jumped through all the necessary hoops to get into the country.  Of course, the whole procedure took longer than any airport that I’ve been to, but it was the politeness, the feeling that someone was taking an interest, and the awareness that both of us where at the mercy of a massive administrative machine that made the whole thing much easier.

And in America, I met Seattle Bill.

Bill was fat.  Bill was big and fat.  In fact, almost everyone in America is big and fat.  I don’t mean that they are all doubly fat, I mean that for their height, they are fat.  Bill towered over me, I was eye to eye with what I imagined would be the arcing red, sweated crease in his skin underneath his last rib bone, where  – if he were shirtless – you would see the clear demarcation line between his ribcage and his unsupported intestinal tract.  He was nineteen feet in height and two  Isuzu People Carriers in width.  BP could’ve drilled for oil in his cleavage.  The unfortunate demography of his lower abdomen had forced him to buckle his trousers around his pubic bone, at roughly the point where pubic hair becomes belly hair.  His stomach muscles had long given up on keeping his gut in check, and I wondered how many steps up a flight of stairs he would need before he fell over backwards clutching his chest.

From his waist upwards, he was a big man.  From below the belthoops of his trousers, he was the stallion of a man that his wife had married thirty years, six million Happy Meals and a four million Cokes  ago.  He also had enough weaponry hanging off his low slung belt that would make Simon Mann think ‘that’s a little too much’.  When asked a perfectly reasonable question by one of the Chinese businessmen behind me – “why are there only two immigration officers?  Why do we have to wait?” – Bill pointed a chubby finger as a thick as a sausage and said through pursed lips with a John Wayne locked jaw “They’ll be ready…when I’m ready”.  He waddled off, the miniature shockwaves of his footsteps sent ripples over his tightly clad buttocks.  He presumably went to get a doughnut.

The flight from Beijing to Seattle dumped me in Seattle at 6:40am.  Thanks to the super high tech Homeland Security I made it through immigration in a mere two hours and fifteen minutes.  I had missed my flight by an hour.  The next flight that I could arrange left Seattle at 5pm, went through a time warp, and dumped me at New York JFK around 11pm.  The flight back from New York to Beijing wasn’t fun either, have been delayed for an entire 27 hours in Seattle airport.  The problem was that in America relies on people that have power but no responsibility.

Chris Rock tells a joke in his stand-up routine that he lives in an area that has house owned by Eddie Murphy, Mary J. Bilge, Jay-Z and a white dentist.  Which is exactly the same as the situation here in China, substituting black folks for Chinese, and er, keeping the white folks.  To be a white man in China, as it is in America, is to have won the lottery of life.

I live in a 68 square meter apartment that I pay 3300rmb per month for (330UKP there abouts).  I come from Manchester, UK, work as an English teacher and earn 14000rmb per month, with about 700rmb tax, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, have no intention of paying off my minor student loan, and live quite happily with few money worries apart from the dent that my annual trip to see the folks is going to put in my bank account.  I speak a little bit of high school Spanish, have intermediate Chinese  and do a little of everything from writing the occasional article in a little known magazine that nobody reads, to teaching people to speak English.  In the last years, I’ve returned home for 3 weeks, taken a 10 day vacation in New York, took a month off to visit friends in Chengdu, whilst traveling to Kunming and Lijiang, return back to my apartment in downtown Beijing, and continued working my rather dull job.  When I got suspicious about a lump growing on my lip last month I immediately went to the Hong Kong International Hospital at the Swissotel in Dongsishitiao and happily paid 680rmb to be told that I have a “lesion on lower lip” and was duly given a course of B multivitamins.

A very close friend of mine studied for her master’s degree in Manchester, speaks fluent English and Chinese, and has a prestigious position in a growing African-Chinese company.   She lives on the outskirts of town, is always looking for a roommate to help with the rent, and hasn’t been out of the country for pleasure since she graduated 8 years ago.  Over weekend she was sick, and is considering going to a doctor if she her condition doesn’t improve.  Needless to say, she’s Chinese and I’m not.

China has been taken over by the morals and values crowd, with the censorship of the Internet and the purge of pornography to create a “healthy online environment”, the failed implementation of the Green Dam software, the scrubbing of critical posts about the government and the house arrests of “subversives”.  Quite frankly, the government of China’s morals and values would have more resonance if the Chinese government actually knew what morals and values were, which I don’t think they do.  I don’t really mean that as an insult, but the belief that every Chinese person is heterosexual, that people don’t like looking at pornography (they do) and that in China don’t really knows what’s going on, or that people in China believe that an apartment in China can be rented for twelve dollars isn’t a moral or a value.  It’s just stupid.  What they’re really talking about are superstitions, traditions, fears and personality cults.  Real morals are honesty, fairness, kindness and tolerance.  The others are just bullshit issues that the Chinese government uses to justify its legitimacy.

Morals and values are choices that we make about how to treat other people.  And they can be measured.  They can be measured in the way we see people treat other people, and of course, the Chinese government, with its institutionalized torture, abuse, harassment of journalists, bloggers, and other free speech advocates, endless transparent propaganda, victimization and other downright out and out lies have shown that their morals do not include treating people like human beings.  We have found out this week, the exact extent to which the Chinese government values the basic rights that, in most modern countries in the first quarter of the 21st Century, we take for granted.  Western journalists have been openly threatened, investigations have been whitewashed, and censorship has tightened, all in the name of the Chinese Communist Party – the last bastion of rhetoric that last saw the light of day behind closed doors in 1950’s USSR.  When did you last hear a sentence that included “the masses”?  1962?  Khrushchev?  Trotsky?  Well, it was actually last week when Wen Jiao Bao made his speech to the NPC.

Chinese people have it easy.  They don’t really have to think that much.  They aren’t really taught to think that much, and anyone who has ridden any subway and has seen Chinese people bemused by the ticket machines, the thought of giving people the vote in China is a terrifying prospect.  When people offer some such pro-democracy comment thinly disguised as “power to the people”, I often find myself asking the question, “what people?  These assholes?”.  Chinese people are often the first to leap to their country’s defense, citing economic progress, healthcare, literacy, the rise in living standards, confused that they shouldn’t be angry at their country, since they have really only done things that their parents could dream about.  Angry is the wrong emotion.  Chinese people shouldn’t be angry about their country or their leadership.  The Chinese, like American people, shouldn’t hate their country – they should be embarrassed by it.