Thursday, May 25, 2006

Changchun, Jilin province, China

Shorter post this time which shouldn’t be difficult. I’ll get my tangents done with as swiftly as I can.

One thing unrelated to modern day China that I would like to waffle on about is the recent decision by Cambodia to start legal proceedings against those responsible for the killing fields. About fucking time you might say but I fear this might not be cause for any celebration. The UN has been rightly concerned that a purely Cambodian run show would be a stunningly corrupt and ineffective affair since the government has little interest in seeking justice. The alternative would be a Nuremberg style trial where the perps are tried by chaps from other countries in a snatch-and grab Milosevic style but that would piss away any cute notions of Cambodians sorting out their own affairs.

From what I’ve got the solution is typical of the UN. After many years of threats, blusters, cajoles and backrubs, the fine legal and diplomatic minds working at the UN have eventually come up with a half-arsed compromise. One prosecutor will be foreign and all the decisions will have to be rubber stamped by outside jurists. I suppose the idea is to “help” the Cambodians finally get some justice. My take is slightly less positive and I’m not too impressed.

As laughable as it may have looked, the Milosevic trial still had one principle that I hold dear: A crime against humanity knows no borders and neither should its punishment. This isn’t like benefit fraud. The name of the game is to put these scrotes away for a long time content with the knowledge that, unlike their victims, they had a chance to defend themselves. Whether this happens in the Hague, Phnom Penh, Nuremberg or Milton Keynes is irrelevant. The perps in this case will be able to throw sand (or briefcases full of cash) in the cogs of the Cambodian machine and my guess is that the outside legal eagles will have to override the locals so much they might as well take charge fully. This could end up in a very morbid farce.

My personal solution would be to sod cosmetics and send in a few special forces types to do an Eichmann on these pricks. They could be tried in Belgium since everyone else seems to be (there are enough exiles in Europe to get plaintiffs and witnesses) and sent to do porridge in France for no better reason that prisons are shit there. Folk will whine about sovereignty and neo-colonialism but what matters is that somewhere in the paddy fields, a Cambodian will know that true bastards are being longcocked in the showers of La Sante prison for having ensured that he has no uncles or aunts despite his parents coming from 6 kid families.

Anyways, Jacques Ob and Mr Nuts will doubtless have a better take on the subject as their legal knowledge, unlike mine, goes beyond having read some John Grisham pulp and spouting off the pub legend that it’s technically legal to kill a Welshman with a bow and arrow after midnight in Coventry. So it’s back to China with me.

Ego trip:

I have recently felt the first pangs of travel hunger. Having a job and a flat inevitably means having to create some sort of routine. Obligations and necessities override what I feel like doing and I now have an average day of sorts. A serious upgrade in living conditions has made the transition pretty easy but now that I am settled and settled on the greener grass and have found somewhat of a daily routine I occasionally get hit by doubt and a strong yearning for the road.

This tends to happen when I have an uneventful day where what was once special is now ordinary. A song, a scent or my still not completely unpacked rucksack in the corner of the room will make me look west and want to hop onto a train. I guess this will pass if I can remind myself that however anodine my daily actions are I am doing them in China. In a way it also forces me to keep my curiosity alive and notice the small things that might intrigue me.

Backpacking is the ideal way of discovering places for those of us brought up with a telly and who have the attention span of a goldfish. Constant motion means constant renewal so the thirst for novelty is always satiated. Now I have to put some effort into discovering a place.

So what’s this increasingly familiar town like? The vital stats of Changchun are that of a medium to big Chinese city, 6 mil in the greater area, a fair dose of industry, pollution and a vast urban sprawl. It’s not on the tourist trail but neither is it one to avoid at all costs. Its real claim to fame is that it was once the seat of the puppet government of Manchukuo the Japs had set up with the complete waste of space that was Pu Yi, aka the Last Emperor. Heavy Jap presence has ensured that you sometimes come across the odd Art Deco With A Japanese Slant building. Oh, and they also put in most of the crummy waterworks of this city.

Basically it’s nothing special which is good for me. I want to experience an average China, a working China and Changchun is quite good for this. The pollution is nasty but nowhere near as nasty as Guangdong or Beijing and the brass monkey bollock freezing temperatures of the Changchun winter is actually a plus in my view. It has got more parks than the average Chinese city so I can access some greenery and try to learn the great Chinese art of sitting on a bench and staring for hours. It’s less of a pain to master than Tai Chi.

Laowai life: Somewhat of an overlap with my Ego Trip as I have decided to describe my job. This is one shared by a lot of Anglo laowais so it’s not too self-obsessed.

When I decided to settle my dusty arse in the Middle Kingdom I had hoped to bag a Uni teaching job as the perks are better holiday wise. My innate sense of timing meant that I arrived a month after I should have looked around and 5 months before the next recruitment period. Got a few offers but all for late summer and I didn’t want to do endless visa runs and deplete my finances even further. I therefore hunted around for a private school with a half decent rep after a few run-ins with dodgy outfits confirmed all the interweb rumours.

Like most schools that recruit foreigners, my employer recognizes the need for youngish expats to do very little and have a lot of spare time to learn the Chinese language , the culture or just go on one massive drinking spree. My teaching load is quite light and though my weekends are essentially fucked my week has a total of 5 teaching hours, all in the evening. In short I have a lot of spare time on my hands to do things like this blog.

The basic requirement for teaching in China is to be a grad from an English speaking nation. TEFLs are a plus but anyone who knows the elaborate networks of fake diplomas and referees based in Bangkok or Hanoi realizes that they are worthless. Even the basics can be ditched if you agree to very dodgy working conditions, possible illegal residency and a slurry of problems. I once met a 19 year old French guy who taught at one of these. He didn’t look happy.

A Chinese classroom presents many challenges beyond the fact that I don’t know what I am doing. Discipline is mostly the preserve of a Chinese teacher who is paid a third of what I get for 3 times the work. Also Chinese deference towards teachers ensures that they don’t piss about too much. The one problem that everyone on the same gravy train as I faces is how to know if they grasp something or they are just repeating. The capacity to parrot of my kids is amazing and a bit frightening. For reason political and cultural, Chinese schools work on a brutal rote learning system where independent thinking and learning by fuck-up is discouraged. As a result my kids probably wouldn’t even sigh if I got them to repeat a sentence 100 times but freeze like a deer in headlights if I shift the context a tad when working on some vocab.

I am surprised that I like the little bastards and actually enjoy what I thought would be a hamster wheel of a job. Once they stop fearing you they can be really great especially when they twig that fun is tolerated when taught by a foreigner. They then develop a scary affection towards you. Usually it’s quite a boost to the old ego but it has drawbacks. Many a time I have strolled out of my place of work with my earphones on, generally oblivious to the world after a short day’s work only to be reminded of reality and gravity by being nearly rugby tackled by some sprog I teach deciding to run up behind me and hug my leg while screaming my name.

In a way the parents are the ones I have trouble working out. They are periodically allowed to come into the classroom to see what we are doing with their progeny and generally sit in the back understanding even less than their kids. When they do get something across it is often along the lines of why don’t I favor their precious, legally mandated, one child over the others. All sorts of hints of favours tend to come along with these comments. Even weirder is their attitude to class discipline. I am by no means the most relaxed of teachers and I am blessed with a voice that can, if needed, stop 19 Chinese kids in their tracks and even hurt their little eardrums a tad. I use this often and to good effect. Yet the parents do not like even the odd lesson based game as it clashes with the disciplinarian hellhole they experienced as nippers.

Another comment that filters to all new teachers after a while is a subtle hint by parents that it’s perfectly alright to belt their child from time to time. This would horrify most parents back home into legal proceedings but here it’s SOP. Amusingly, if I wanted to get the parents to flid the only thing I have to do is send a rowdy kid to kick his heels and calm down in the corridor for 5 minutes. At that point they react as if had done like the Vatican’s finest and taught their 5 year old how to pole-dance. The reason for this is face.

Know Your Masters: Giving and Losing Face.

The reason the parents lose it for what would seem like a mild sanction for misbehaviour is that to isolate a kid from his peers is a major loss of face for the parents. It implies that they are not raising their child as well as others and that really insults them. Face is omnipresent in most of Asia but here it is taken very, very seriously.

I am still learning what can make one lose or save face but I have had the joy of many encounters with it. A typical example is when I ask for directions. A Chinese man will lose face if he admits he doesn’t know where the Great Hall of the People is even if he has been in the town for 5 minutes. To save face, the bastard will quickly invent a fictitious location and send you off on a wild goose chase. It took me a month in China to set myself the golden rule of always asking women for directions. Women are not expected to know more then men, regardless of origins so don’t lose face if they tell me they don’t know but a Chinese man is expected to be more knowledgeable than a Western bloke on anything to do with China so will rather die than fess up to ignorance or more accurately will rather see me off on the wrong bus than ask someone around him.

The tourist guides will tell you that the biggest mistake a Westerner makes with regards to face is to get shouty and lose his temper. This is a great loss of face and will get you nothing except the total loss of any respect the locals had for you. A stroll through a Chinese town will immediately reveal this bit of advice for the tosh it is. I have seen countless shouting matches and even the odd punch up over trivial matters and I can safely say the Chinese are not averse to a good bit of argie bargie. What does matters however is when to get rowdy or not. You basically have to try and work out where you are on the very subtle pecking order of Chinese society and then yell downwards. Giving verbal to the upper echelons such as anyone with a uniform, even a train conductor, will result in loss of face for both parties but mainly for you. Bullying the lower orders such as the poor or women for little reason is conversely a face gainer.

It would take a lifetime for me to work out the intricacies of face and its origins but it will take me minutes to judge it. It’s complete and utter tripe. I don’t care how much it is ingrained in Confucian values or whatever it is essentially schoolyard tough kid mentality. The younger generation, or at least the members I have met, tend to agree with me and it dicks them off even more as they have to live with it constantly whereas I have some leeway as a foreigner. Ego is something that should be curbed not bloody enshrined as a cultural asset.

Mind you I should start to care about it a bit more now that I live here as my backpacking reaction to displays of face gaining or face losing has been open mockery if they were dumb enough to use me for on of these exercises. I have had to do this the odd time particularly when some drunk tosser decides thumbing his nose (sometimes quite literally) at a laowai will be a great face gainer. The result of a contemptuous snigger by me is as pantomimesque as the initial approach with hands sunk in pockets, hunched shoulders and prolonged staring at shoes. I have been told that this is because laughing at someone who pulls this stunt makes them lose mucho face. I have also been told to be careful doing this as once I have derided their weird challenge to only way for them to save face would be to beat the crap out of me. I will be more wary now that I live here. Probably

WTF: Haircuts, hairdryers and man in a box.

The haircut come from a fun hour when I decided that my young pupils will probably find me funny enough without me looking like Shaggy out of Scoobidoo and that poncy locks would have to be on standby for a year along with my sandals. I walked in to my local barber and signaled for him to generally shorten everything. I am not that much more precise with the cutters back home so I didn’t intend to learn any specific vocab. I have much to learn in Hanyu but “highlights” is one word I’ll probably die ignorant of. Anyway the guy got snipping tentatively but eventually realized my hair was made of the same dead keratin strands that grace the heads of his regular patrons and got cracking.

He worked all around my head, asked me if it was ok and started over again. I figured was going to continue until I said stop and let him go on until I got what I wanted. All this time I had noticed the folk behind me staring intently but I didn’t mind and sort of expected it. What I saw when I got out of the chair did surprise me a bit as a small crowd of onlookers had gathered outside. I waved, they laughed and all went well but the barber asked me to wait for a mate of his to arrive with a camera so he could prove he had cut blond hair.

The hairdryer is actually unrelated to haircutting but connected with health issues. As I have mentioned before, street barbecues abound and you have to be careful if you don’t want to spend the next day on the bog. This is easy enough at mealtimes where the number of local patrons will give you a hint to how good the chow is but trickier for post boozing munchies when you the sole customers around are you and seriously gambeied businessmen. That’s where the hairdryers come in. The more established place have raised the capital to get a hairdryer to keep their coals hot. This tells you they do a lot of grilling and therefore are probably safe. It’s all in the details.

Man in a box is just that. I was walking under an overpass near my home where all sorts of scrap merchants congregate. They are a friendly bunch and usually beckon you over for a quick bout of having nothing to say to each other. This time I noticed a big box on a bicycle/cart job, where people went to and put a handful of cash in it. I then noticed that on this fine day a well dressed bloke was hunched in that box receiving the cash. Why, how, what? I don’t know

That’s it for this post,

Take care,



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Monday, May 29, 2006 9:38:00 AM  

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