Simon – China
Organising a game where one of the kids pretends to be an animal and the other kids have to guess what he/ she is – an active test of the vocabulary they learnt last week. Before the game can begin it requires a demonstration of what ‘pretend’ means.
Choosing one of the more rotund little fellows I took him outside and asked him to go back into the classroom and pretend to be a monkey. It was simply left up to the other kids to guess what he was. Graciously accepting his new role he marched proudly back into the classroom. Before he could even start grooming his scalp for gnats the whole class shouted “PIG!”. Clearly upset, Porky mentally retreated to his happy place while I placed a fatherly arm around his shoulders. Just as I was about to offer some choice words to the rest of the class, Porky shouted in his most feral prepubescent squeel: “Fuck you!”.
Struggling with what my ears had just heard and a liberal sprinkling of denial, my fears were confirmed when the rest of the class roared back, “NO! Fuck YOU!” (x 39). Fighting back the tears of laughter, I informed the class that this was a very bad thing to say and I didn’t want it repeated in my class again (all the while mentally backtracking to see if they’d learnt it from me). Needless to say, I ignored the little apple polisher who asked what it meant.
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For the last four weeks the kids and teachers have been preparing for that unpaid extravaganza of festivity that is a Chinese Christmas performance. Costumes had been made, dance routines carefully rehearsed, sponsors in the form of local businesses were successfully found – it was all astoundingly, and I say this without a hint of sarcasm, professional.
To get into the Pagan swing of things the teachers chose a Christmas play which seamlessly manages to blend all those elements which the West commonly associates with Christmas into one debutorial masterpiece. That’s right, they chose Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. Or, if you want to stick more closely to the script, Snow White and The Seven Little People.
Given all the warning and choice to which I have lovingly become accustomed to while living here I was told that I was being ‘invited’ to play the role of Prince Charming. I was informed by one of the teachers that I should be flattered at this proposal – being chosen because I am the most handsome man in the school. I’m sure those of you who know me are thinking ‘Simon, you were the natural choice. Who else could look so much like Brad Pitt without actually being him? However, as I graciously replied to said teacher, when you only have two other options – Roger, Ronnie Corbett’s lost twin, and a janitor who doesn’t speak any English – then The Milky Bar Kid is your safest bet.
As a means of fending off the inevitable boredom and furthering the cultural development of my fellow teachers, I have been teaching them how to swear like troopers and do the Fresh Prince of Bel Air/ Jazzy Jeff handshake. They absolutely love it and have been absorbing the lessons like the highest quality linguistic sponges. While I am confident that they could now quite comfortably pull pints in any Yorkshire Working Men’s Pub , I have been very careful to tell them that this colourful language is only to be used in the company of their friends and obviously those adults who will not understand them. Naturally Roger was the first field test. However, you cannot begin to imagine the surprise I received during rehearsals when Jenny (as the Evil Queen) approached the magic mirror only to find she had failed to do away with Snow White. Elegantly wielding her wand she dramatically shouted “Bollocks! Curse that Snow White!!!”, before storming off stage. I could almost feel Walt turning in his Nazi-affiliated grave. Trying not to laugh too hard since we were surrounded by a hoard of festive spawn and Grace, I suggested that maybe a heart-felt “Dash it all!” or “Oh, dear” would be more appropriate. To which she replied, “Nobody understands anyway”. A simple but incredibly convincing argument I think you’ll all agree, opening the flood gates for a plethora of choice profanities to creep their way into the play.
As Jesus’ birthday drew nearer it was naturally time to start thinking about costumes. My growing stage fright was not aided by the knowledge that I was expected to wear a cape and knee high boots. Thankfully, my festive role as a rather camp and ineffective superhero was short lived as I was informed that one of the local businesses would be providing us with well-tailored garb. So, accompanied by three of the other teachers I experienced what no single commitment-shy man should ever have to endure: a wedding dress shop. My role was to sit there wearing a look of pre-marital captivation while a procession of flowing dresses bounced and billowed in front of me, occasionally interjecting to offer deep insightful comments like ‘Yeah, it’s nice,’ or my particular favourite, ‘I don’t know, they both look good’. Finally, just as I was about to cash in the last of my ‘Man points’, Claire kicked me from my coma and pushed me towards that choice-filled realm that is the men’s clothing department. There were two suits.
Now, if we were to say that my self respect was the ocean, then Kate Winslet would be bobbing along on it’s surface on a door wearing suit number one. Plunging towards the crushing black would be Leonardo DeCaprio looking every bit the dapper cavalier in suit number two. In time old fashion, suit number one did not fit. On to suit number two. Given that my skin has all the colour and radiant health of someone who has spent vast periods of their life underground, and that my hair colour teeters on that tight-rope of cool/ social isolation that is blond/ginger, imagine my sheer joy when the shop assistant hands me a gold tuxedo with all the trimmings. Fitting me like a glove woven by fate itself, I looked like the biggest of Big Yellow Turds. As Claire/ Snow White and I stood in front of the mirror, a handful of shop floor staff fainting at the image of beauty and perfection before them, I leaned towards Claire and with the greatest of sincerity said, “Claire, I look like a real wanker”. Gently placing a hand on my forearm in a move which any budding Samaritan would have been proud of, she said “Yes, I think so”.
However, Claire was not to escape the realm of cool and sophistication that is China unscathed. On the day of the no-expenses-spared performance, Snow White was ushered (freshly poisoned) onto the stage in the finest tinsel-clad industrial site wheelbarrow that money can buy. The illusion of her convincing death during this scene was ruined only by the fact that as The Seven Little People struggled to wheel her centre stage, she had to lift her legs off the ground to prevent them trailing along behind her. Oh, and just as a little aside, if ever you wanted some insight into the nature of the Chinese psyche then a Christmas panto is where to go. Standard audience procedure is to cheer when confronted with good, and ‘boo’ when faced with evil. It is a testament to how long I have been in China when I was not surprised in the least as a 2000 strong audience cheered and bayed with delight as Snow White was convincingly strangled by everyone’s favourite heroine, the Evil Queen. As The Seven Stunted People giggled their way through the trauma of Snow White’s death, I strode on stage looking every bit the modern day jaundiced Hercules, plucked Snow White from her death bed (adopting the proper lift with the knees procedure) and administered ‘Love’s First Handshake’. Because Chinese culture is a little more tame in the kissing stakes than the West, it was felt a peck on the cheek from a pale face may be a little bit too much for them. Coupled with this was the inevitable and entirely understandable jealousy which would be felt by every man, woman, and beast in the audience as Claire received the much prized ‘Kiss of The Yellow Turd’. After Claire received my rather rushed marriage proposal, we then walked hand-in-hand around the stage blinded by The Seven Satan Spawn throwing confetti in our eyes, to the dulcet tones of one of the teachers singing the theme from ‘Titanic’. Since I put listening to Celine Dion right up there with any act involving my genitals and a rusty cheese grater, this was not a pleasant experience.
So, my Charm duties out of the way, it was on to my second role in the day’s performance: Father Christmas. Recognising the immense importance that Father Christmas plays in every true Christian’s heart, Grace chose to hide me at the back of the stage (with the strict instructions not to move) distributing presents to the little cherubs as they finished their performances and exited stage left. My Christmas sack was left looking significantly festively deflated as I watched the kids exit stage right. As the day’s spectacle drew to a close, the final nail in the coffin was reserved for having to watch as a guy dressed in a big KFC chicken outfit took centre stage and started luring the kids onto the stage like a rather edible Pied Piper. To do the KFC dance. On Christmas Day. With my kids. The spirit of Christmas is truly alive and well – although now’s it’s coated in crispy bread crumbs and taking orders from someone called ‘The Colonel’.
Anyhow, the kids were great and in that rather chunder-inducing way, it was an extremely rewarding experience. Watching them playing their instruments the way the devil intended, busting their little dance moves/satanic rituals, and singing at a pitch that The Bee Gees only dreamed of made working on Christmas Day worthwhile.
As a group, foreigners (that’s teachers abroad) can often be a little bit hit and miss. As you can imagine, when you’re one of only an handful of aliens out of a population of 500 000, having someone you can relate to or just enjoy a little bit of banter with over a beer, is a very important thing indeed. In some cases it can alter your entire experience of a country. On the whole, to an outsider, these makeshift international communities can look an incredibly disparate entity. They violate cliques and preconceived social strata. People you may not necessarily have associated with back home or at the very most said a passing hello to due to age, fashion or skin diseases, are now your best buddies. Everyone realises the unspoken importance of this entity. This crew each have an integral part in maintaining the life raft that is your sanity abroad, with one dysfunctional member (in so many senses of the word) able to pick apart the rigging, and leave you drifting alone.
But, first off, lets start with why people may chose to leave The Mother Ship and form part of a foreign community in the first place. From speaking to my fellow detainees this can cover a whole gamut of reasons ranging from boredom, the fulfilment of a life long dream, the desire for new experiences, to test, find, or lose themselves, to procure a wife (popular one, that), right through to avoiding Pop Idol and Big Brother XXXII. Personally, while the latter were a big driving force (although I did get addicted to The Salon – predominantly due to the twin masseurs), I was bored with my job and felt I’d learnt quite enough about getting beaten up by people with learning disabilities. So, I thought what better way to ‘love myself’ than to volunteer to get beaten up for three months by orphans in Mongolia. After many many adventures in what shall forever be lovingly referred to as The Mong, I decided to travel down to China because, in the words of Edmund Hillary, it was there. After travelling for a month with the population of Israel I found myself staring at an advertisement in a hotel lobby asking for foreign teachers and began teaching a week later. Magical. Yes, I had fallen in love with China but my reluctance to return to blighty was also because I knew what was there. There are days when I can both love and hate China but it will never cease to surprise me.
Anyway, back to the point. With some foreigners you get the distinct impression that they didn’t so much ‘exit’ their country of origin as ‘get pushed’ without a parachute. My friends have even gone so far as to postulate that they left because they couldn’t function or fit in in their own country. Now, this is a sad thing, and believe me, I’m not taking the piss here. Maybe just a little… What I’m trying to say is that I understand that nobody is perfect (although in a universe where Ken Dodd exists there has to be an exact opposite, right? We’ve all seen ‘Unbreakable’) and my friends and I are not sat atop the Tower of Well Adjusted pointing accusatory (yet impossibly well manicured) fingers at the masses below. We all have or have had problems. We’ve all woken up not knowing where we are only to be sat in front of a class of expectant looking children with their books open, right? Good. Glad you’re with me on that one. The real problem arises when your personal problems begin to effect those little bundles of joy the parents and school have entrusted you with. I think it’s then you really need to take an honest look at yourself and ask ‘will I be doing more harm than good here, for myself and others?’. Preferably, though, for all those concerned, this thought process should take place before you book your flight ticket.
This article kicks off with a couple of individuals my friends and I have met through the international community and in our daily working lives. These guys, whose names shall be kept anonymous, had a few personal character quirks which I feel you may find amusing, predominantly because their effect on others was minor or simply baffling. I will then give you a far too recent example of when a boundary is crossed and others too young to protect themselves are left exposed, taking us to the crux of my point.
Ron was a respectable looking gent in his mid fifties whose capacity for verbal diarrhoea was of the highest order. He was one of those strangely intriguing people you want to secretly follow around with a camera all day just to see what adventures he’ll get into. His claims to fame were tutoring Robin Williams (which, for me, quite comprehensively clears up many questions I’ve had about that actor) and going on an arson spree after contracting Dengue fever. He had (by his own admission) led a very interesting life, roaming the planet teaching English and presumably becoming ever more bizarre.
When we met him he was half way through his contract, originally coming here to improve on his T’ai Chi studies, and seemingly of a stable disposition. When I expressed an interest in studying T’ai Chi he generously offered to introduce me to his T’ai Chi group who practise in the park every morning. At stupid o’clock in the morning, – I am not a morning person. It is very obvious from looking at me that I am not a morning person. It takes me a good three hours to start stringing sentences together after I open my eyes, and these sentences invariably involve the words ‘coffee’, ‘go back to bed’, or ‘where am I?’ – with a delightful gathering of crusty drool, eye snot, and a daringly dishevelled bed-head I sat unresponsive, dead to the casual observer, at the back of the bus while Ron talked at me. But the monologue wasn’t about how crap I looked or whether he could get me a doctor, it touched on everything from how Germany as a nation would most easily embrace a drug habit to the resilience of your standard Water Buffalo to needles. Listening to him was like drinking a cocktail of David Lynch and morphine while riding a roller coaster. When we finally reached the park what seemed like days later I may as well have been wandering through something composed by Salvador Dali for all the sense the world now made to me.
We tried combating the torrent of dejecta with a few firm slaps in the face from Mr Logic but they were casually redirected (curse that T’ai Chi) down the well trodden road labelled ‘Tangent’. The only means we had of defending ourselves was to write his pearls of wisdom down on a few pieces of paper so that hopefully, when some alien species comes to defrost Haley Joel Osment they may be able to make sense of them. Alternatively, they may stare at the paper with their 3 eyes and superior mental functions and think ‘What the f-?”. He talked at length with the utmost conviction about subjects which upon further questioning he clearly had no idea about, made a plethora of Bushisms, and never listened to anything you said. At one point, after searching for what seemed like an eternity for the correct word, he suggested one of our friends use a seismograph to check on the progress of his unborn child. Quite how big he expected the child to be is anybody’s guess but I wouldn’t want to be around for those labour pains.
Being the well-travelled soul that he was you would expect him to possess a range of people skills allowing him to blend seamlessly into any culture he may find himself. Hell, no. When one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet politely asked him whether she may borrow the foreign teachers office key so she might use the only computer on that floor, he simply replied, and I quote, “I would lend them to you but things might get stolen”. It’s light banter like that which failed to ingratiate himself into the hearts of the Chinese teachers, in particular Amy, our Chinese guardian and problem solver/causer. The atmosphere between them was uncomfortable to say the least. At Ron’s last supper before leaving China he tried (to his credit) to paper over the fault lines of his movements over the past year by approaching Amy with arms open wide and declaring “In America when we say goodbye we like to give a great, big hug!” The rest of us looked on horrified as Ron threw his arms around Amy who did an extremely convincing impression of Pepe LePew’s reluctant object of desire. It was a Hallmark moment. Yet Amy’s trial wasn’t going to end there. In the bus back to the school Ron turned to her and gazing deep into her eyes said “You remind me of my sister in law. She’s Japanese, you know.” Needless to say, the rest of us were wearing the same expression I was modelling when I accidentally put a peppermint flavoured condom on the wrong way round. Given the fairly ubiquitous opinion felt towards the Japanese after the Nanjing massacre (at least the Chinese in this area) this was probably not the most intelligent note to leave on…
The other foreign teacher I’d like to tell you about was Mark. Mark was a cool guy and we got on really well. His only fault, bless him, was that he made really really bad decisions. His mother from Nigeria, his father from London, he was entirely the wrong colour for this sheltered part of China in the same way that I am entirely the wrong hew to spend a life in the desert. Given that the only exposure to black people these people have had is through dated movies: drug dealers, and sport: Michael Jordan, Mark found himself with quite a few high expectations to live up to. To his credit he single-handedly managed to shatter these stereotypes as if it was a mission from God. He did not smoke or drink, carry a gun or slap his beyatch* if she interfered in his bidness*. Big fat disappointed Chinese cross against drug dealer then. OK, what about Basketball? You have to be good at Basketball, right? Mark was a strapping 6’2″ and looked like he could quite comfortably emerge from a Pro Football game with a feral roar as he casually brushed off another man’s intestines from his shoulder. Mike’s favourite sport was ping pong. And he hated Basketball. Fine, then. Singing. You must be good at singing? Mark was one of those people who wears headphones, privatising his musical experience, but then shares what he’s listening to by singing it right back at you, raw, in a way that would make the original artist hang up their vocal cords as a favour to mankind. There’d be no making sweet love to that. Unless, of course, it was to yourself… And before you start thinking ‘what’s so good about your voice, then?’, I will reiterate a point I made in an earlier story: absolutely nothing. My singing voice is terrible – but I’m comfortable with that. I don’t think I need to prove it, word of mouth should have taken care of that for me by now. I only feel the need to unleash it when I’m feeling threatened, like a rather benevolent skunk.
* Editor – Try the urban dictionary for definitions.
Anyway, I was trying to make a point about really bad decisions. Now, Mark was a bit of a lady killer and one of the reasons he came to China was to ‘get familiar with the culture’. OK, it’s not morally correct, but lots of foreigners do it. True, they’re usually 400lbs and set the whole thing up over the Internet in their parents’ house, but that’s beside the point. Mark decided he would start early, and on the train journey to his current job placement, randomly phoned Amy and asked her, quite out of the blue, if she was married. And then presumably the conversation kind of died off. Strike one.
A month later, Mark came to the grade 3 office where I was doing lesson plans, and asked if he could use the Internet there. Sure, no problem. After a while he woke me up to show me something his mate had sent him. He sat down at the computer and clicked on the mouse, only to reveal well-known hip-hop stars ‘tackle-out’. As I’m stood there trying to focus (while simultaneously wondering a) why he’s showing me this, and more importantly b) why I’m still looking), it is at our most beautiful moment together that a Chinese teacher enters the classroom, a person who would invariably be described as a little door mouse. Rather than assume the defensive position in this situation and close the window, Mark chose to hypnotise her by dragging the window rapidly up and down giving the impression of a novelty pogo stick. The window finally, predictably, settled dead centre on a picture of Snoop Dogg demonstrating to a friend what I can only assume was which direction you need to look to find the North Star. The door-mouse did a picture book double-take, made a mental note of the direction of the North Star, and then proceeded to give me an unsettling ‘knowing’ look for the rest of the term. Strike two.
The Chinese (at least in this area) have a very distinct and antiquated idea about what you should look like if you belong to a particular nation. If you have dark or brown hair and are loud then you are an American. If you have a string of onions around your neck and a baguette under your arm, you are French. If you talk about the weather and wear a bowler hat at all times then you are British. True, while I possess the finest rag head of blond hair placing me firmly under the German section, I also possess a passport which states clearly that I am a British citizen and have no genetic penchant for David Hasselhoff. Unfortunately, in the skewed world that I now voluntarily live, Black = African. And if you delve further into the handbook, African = No speaka the Engleesh. Not to worry, any doubts that Amy may have had that she’d hired a British impostor would easily be cast aside by the shining ray of truth that is a British passport. Ah. Before Mark came here he told me that he had to renew his passport. Option A was to get a new Nigerian citizenship passport. Option B was to get a British citizenship passport. What was Mark’s decision ultimately based on? The queue was shorter for the Nigerian passport. Strike three.
Despite our trying to convince Amy that Mark was British, he fled the school (after further problems) under the cover of darkness without a word, only to e-mail us a week later to tell us he was still alive. In retrospect though, he was doomed from the start. Mark was Phillipe’s flatmate. Poor bastard.
OK, so those were the kooky examples, nice enough people with a little bit of spice to pep up your daily life. No harm done (although I’ll never forget which direction the North Star is in). Now, every teacher has bad days. Sometimes its your fault (poor lesson planning), sometimes – heaven forbid – it’s the kids’ fault (demonic possession), sometimes it’s a combination of both. But sometimes it’s none of these, which is even worse. If this next story was a TV programme it would be aired under the title “When Foreign Teachers Go Wrong’.
The school I am about to start a fresh contract with (long story) presently have no foreign teachers working for them which, for a school as successful and with it’s reputation, is a little unusual. Apparently they had three, but for reasons I am about to explain, they all disappeared. I have only Amy’s version of events so obviously, this is not the complete story. It appears that, for whatever reason, the relationship between two of the foreigners living together broke down. They then began communicating with each other with post-it notes or, if the mood took them, long, meandering letters involving the words ‘kill’, ‘spit on mercy’, and ‘beat you to death’. While initially who was the victim and who was the aggressor was never made particularly clear, when the final letter stated ‘I will kill you both the next time I see you’, rather unsurprisingly, particularly with Amy’s failure to do anything practical, the two foreigners left. This left the only foreign teacher working with primary school kids as someone who felt so out of control with a situation that he deemed it necessary to threaten two people with death. And according to the other Chinese teachers, he had a ‘temper’ problem – given the Chinese’s uncanny knack for understatement, I’m sure to the extent that Hitler felt the Jews were rather annoying. Sensing any problems coming up here?
I like to think of myself as a fairly patient soul and rarely let my temper get the better of me (the exception being when old people conspire to magically appear wherever I need to be when I’m in a hurry – a watertight case for justifiable homicide I’m sure you’ll all agree). Kids are a demanding crowd and can be trying on the nerves to say the least, so every now and then you need to ‘punish’ them. However, the idea behind punishing them when they step over that line is that the punishment fits the crime. Doctrine of Proportionality and all that. The child needs to understand what they did wrong, why it is wrong, and must feel that the punishment fits the crime otherwise they don’t learn anything and start posting poo through your letter box along with the Sunday supplements. Baring this in mind, I’m sure you can only imagine their surprise and horror when, after pushing this guy’s buttons a little too much, they found themselves at the front of the classroom with their trousers and underwear around their ankles. These children were 9 years old. Fortunately, following this moment of madness, Mr Glitter’s protégé was fired and later escorted off the premises by the local police after a host of other, I’m happy to say, non-child related incidents.
This brings me swinging back round to the point of this article: however antiquated we’ve seen how China can be, it is in some respects extremely naively accepting. It quite openly welcomes in foreigners on good faith. The good faith that that when you come to work here you are both mentally and emotionally fit to do so. It doesn’t have the police checks and constant monitoring of the West. It is poorly equipped to deal with these problems which means if you do have them you are very much, in every sense of the word, on your own out here. Being a teacher is about being responsible for your kids and the only way you can truly do that is to be responsible for yourself. If you really care about kids then you make sure they are safe. We all have our quirks – the kids love the fact that I pretend I can’t teach – but if you feel you have a problem which may affect your ability to do your job and more importantly, lead your life, then get professional help while you can. China is not going anywhere (plate tectonics is about dinner ware, right?) – it will still be here if and when you feel ready. As self proclaimed Master of Mime – that suspected hernia was a tough one – I can imagine going to a hospital and miming paranoid schizophrenia may be a tad difficult. Our actions influence the lives of these kids, however little attention you think they’re paying to you, and it’s this impression of foreigners and the West that they’re going to grow up with. At the moment this country, with a third of the world’s population, trusts us. I know of three 9 year-olds who will now grow up thinking otherwise.
China has the uncanny knack of being able to lull you into a false sense of security and then manages to pack your ass full of Columbia’s annual coke haul, smile, and push you into customs and immigration. When it’s not you it’s quite a magical process to watch. Unfortunately, after a particularly trying five lessons straight, I received my calling. On opening an envelope which had been casually thrown on my desk (accompanied by the deliverer donning a fake beard and sprinting off, I’m sure) I found out that I had been ‘invited’ to give a one and a half hour speech on ‘Vocational Education in the West’. The next day. Giving a speech came as no particular surprise as it fell under that broad category of ‘dancing school monkey’ that foreign teachers seem to occupy and was thus in the finest print of my contract. What was a surprise was that two weeks ago I had been asked to prepare a presentation on that vaguest of topics, ‘Britain’, and had been thinking about working on it for a good two weeks now. Noticing through my spluttering fury that there was a phone number at the bottom should I have any questions, I rang Jessica, the foreign teachers’ assistant. “Jessica – what do I know about vocational education?” After enduring what I can only assume was a happily bemused silence on the other end of the phone, I changed tactics: “Jessica, I don’t know anything about vocational education. I went to university – I don’t have a vocation. Why would you think I know about vocational education in the West?” I immediately knew the answer that was forming in her mind, ‘you are from the West and therefore know about all things associated with it, no matter how obscure’. After she offered that OK, maybe I could just talk about education in the West, I realised that there was no escaping my fate, and I shifted uneasily as the coke haul was inserted firmly where the sun doesn’t shine. She also informed me that it should be a PowerPoint presentation. Super.
So, after many hours of procrastination, a trip to McDonald’s and a good bitching session with my friends, I settled down to find out just what vocational education is and from there decide how to approach customs and immigration. And herein lies one of China’s problems regarding learning English: it doesn’t matter whether you are particularly competent as a teacher, as long as you fit that token Westerner image. I could have quite easily gone to the presentation, tap-danced for a few minutes, sung a Backstreet Boys number, and played “Simon says…” for the remaining hour and twenty minutes, and my school would have been perfectly happy because it achieved everything they wanted: to show off that they had a foreigner. Unfortunately, I have no desire to be a children’s TV presenter and like to keep my self-respect topped up, so I nestled into my chair in the school office and stared bleary-eyed at the computer until the early hours of the morning, plotting my revenge…
After waking from a pleasant sleep only to find that Mianyang hadn’t been consumed by flames, I grudgingly climbed into the school car with Jessica and we promptly drove to the wrong school. Confirming that Jessica was, as I had suspected, competent with a capital ‘K’, we set off again on our magical mystery tour. It was at that point that I had a moment of clarity: in all probability these people know absolutely nothing about vocational education – I could probably bullshit my way through the entire thing. Back on familiar territory, I relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Until we pulled into the entrance of the grand and austere ‘Mianyang Vocational Education College’. Bugger.
I’d like to tell you what the college was like, even the room I was giving the presentation in, unfortunately, I was experiencing what survivors of disaster situations call ‘tunnel vision’. My tunnel became even smaller when I realised that the room had no computer for my PowerPoint presentation and I had no written notes with me. Sensing some threat to that happy little place that is Jessica’s World and possibly her proximity to imminent death, she scuttled off to find out if there was a room with a computer. To her credit and current existence, she found one, and so began one and a half hours of ‘Vocational Education in the West’…
It was after the first 30 minutes that even I started to believe I knew what I was talking about. Soon time was up, the Headmistress approached me, seemed genuinely happy with the presentation, told me that other schools had provided teachers to give presentations but they hadn’t been satisfactory. She then looked me in the eyes and told me that she now had ‘trust and respect’ for my school. Rock on. When I enquired how long the presentation had been planned for she told me that the guests had been informed of the talk a week ago. I, me, myself, the guy giving the presentation, had been given less than a day’s notice. My rung on the china food chain and the pointlessness of my existence here had just been revealed.
And now for the revenge section…
It turns out that there is a fairly hefty amount of philosophy behind the idea of vocational education – a lot of philosophers to quote. Two of the most prominent and fictitious philosophers to appear in the Emperor’s new clothes that was my presentation were those pillars of the vocational education world, Poontang (1984) and Santorum (1978). If you don’t know what the latter is, it is a term recently coined in ‘Savage Love’ (www.theonion.com). If you don’t know what the former is then I’m afraid there’s no help for you. You have no idea how hard it was to suppress the tears of laughter as I said the names of these great scholars into my microphone in front of a packed presentation hall and watch them diligently scribble them down. Pure gold. True, a slightly puerile and unprofessional way to exact revenge but I cannot express how frustratingly annoying it is to have your anger fall on deaf and, under these particular circumstances, cheery ears. It’s like trying to have an argument with a Care Bear or a small watery eyed child. If you’re reading this thinking ‘you bugger, they had nothing to do with your predicament’ – I’ll quickly point you to the fact that the presentation’s content was accurate and thoroughly researched save for my two favourite scholars. If the audience even kept their notes afterwards (yes, foreign teachers, your words are that valuable – the equivalent to those mobile phone flyers I’m constantly being plied with), they are highly likely to put Poontang (1984) and Santorum (1978) down to a spelling mistake or a sleep-deprived mistake on my part. Everyone’s a winner.
As I climbed into a taxi destined for my school (Jessica’s last happy words accompanied by a large uncomprehending smile, were “You’ll finish your presentation just in time to go back and give your five lessons!” – there really is a big difference in thinking between the East and the West) it suddenly dawned on me that despite my arguing the opposite, I do have a vocation: the incredibly invaluable ability (especially here in China) to spout convincing bullshit for long periods of time.
Oh, I was at a party the other week when I was approached by what can only be described as a presentation groupie. Instantly violating my bubble she hit me with that question I’ve grown to fear, “Do you remember me?”. After a quick unrewarding mental spasm my memory came up with a big fat no as she managed to fit the stereotypical modal of ‘short Chinese girl’ remarkably well: short, dark, straight hair, wearing daring combination of day-glo, Chinese-looking, girl. Let’s face it, if I ever get my purse snatched here I’d never be able to identify the culprit – even if I took them out for lunch afterwards. Anyhow, she told me we’d never met (?!?) but that she attended my presentation and was a lecturer on vocational education. Ah. I mentally started trying to coax my testicles back out of the body cavity while maintaining an air of sophistication and cool. She said the presentation was very good and had used a lot of my material BUT, and this is the important part, she thought I was very naughty.
OK, so maybe some of those who attended were paying attention…
…either that or she was referring to that moment of weakness when Posh Spice was in England and I was alone with my secretary.
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