Friday, July 14, 2006

Changchun, China

I’m back. I’ve been off the blog for longer than I have ever been. For those of you who have an interest in what I do or see, I apologise. Basically, what I was worried would happen did happen. No, I didn’t end up in trouble with the Chinese fuzz which would at least have been interesting. Worse; I got settled.

By settled I mean I am now a plain old worker. I focus on my job, my social outings and my humdrum life. What surrounds me has become background, stuff I glimpse at on my way to places but don’t register anymore. I have lost my eye for detail and my curiosity. For me to sit down and write about what I see or do had lost its appeal. It felt like I was telling people about what I had for lunch or that I had a good day at work. Though content with my life at present, I am no longer inspired by it.

After a few reminders from folks to get scribbling I decided to take action and jolt myself back to writing mode. I took a bus to Jilin, a medium size town 2 hours away from Changchun. It’s not the most interesting place to go but it was unfamiliar. After 30 minutes of faffing around trying to work out which bloody bus station I had been dropped off at, I started to feel all lost, confused and backpackery. I missed that feeling. I was half tempted to go searching for a cheap hostel just for old time’s sake. I got my bearings and headed for the river, sunglasses on, some of my favourite travel tunes in my ear and, after a couple of miles, sweat running down my back. I was back in the game.

There isn’t much to see in Jilin in the summer. It’s more of a winter place so I will have to go back there at some point. Anyway what mattered to me is that I was once again content to observe the Chinese. I did go to a Confucian temple though and was a bit disappointed. The main interest of this place is that they have maintained/restored/recreated/ outright fabricated the examinations cells where candidates would live, sleep and write for days on end. Closed for my little eyes I’m afraid. My guess is that they were being spring-cleaned as I could see museum display cases stacked outside a locked building with English signs on the door. I reckon it’s going to be a while before they reopen too as most of the staff of this place were busy collecting and boxing the fallen fruit from the various trees in the courtyard.

Other than that I strolled around a strange market area. In Changchun segregated mercantilism is the norm. You go to one place for such and such and another for this or that. In Jilin it is all mixed together. There were two main shopping streets that resembled a UK highstreet except for the speakers mounted outside blasting shit Chinese Pop at ear splitting volumes and women clapping (they do this to attract customers but why it works is beyond me). These 2 streets were bisected by 2 more scruffy market streets . Of note in these is that whoever is in charge decided to put the spice, roots and herbs vendors at the entrances therefore attracting you with pleasant exotic scents and getting you far into the street before the more customary smell of rotting fish, meat and veg hits you. Also, for some reason, a lot of the shops seemed to flog stuffed deer often arranged as cute dead Bambi families.

Anyways I had fun noticing stuff I had forgotten was interesting and am now ready to write again.

Ego trip.

Not much going on except that my sprogs are going mental in the heat. I recently subbed for another teacher who had warned me that the class he was asking me to take was somewhat out of control. I decided I was not going to put up with any crap, especially if I was doing a favour. Chinese people aren’t to keen on brutal changes and surprises and the kids are no exception except that they seem content just to be flummoxed and don’t get arsey about it (a great tradition in English schools is the chorus of insane complaints about a new teacher’s weight, height, accent, knowledge of English that the parents cook up to mark their displeasure of losing their familiar teacher).

I knew I had a 10 minute window where they would stare at me in fear and awe and I used it to set the tone. Minor background noise was silenced with a roar, slumpy postures were corrected with intimidating stares and horseplay during opening games was a one way ticket back to their seat. I was helped by the resident class clown/evil little shit my colleague had warned me about. The brave boy obliged me by acting up and taking the piss within 5 minutes therefore allowing me to use the classic technique of punishing one poor sod pour encourager les autres. He had the joy of standing by my side in front of his peers, staring at the wall and trying not to cry as the Chinese assistant translated to the rest why he would not play any games during the class and that any other would be comedians would also be banned from all things fun.

Anyway, my little intimidation blitzkrieg worked a charm and the sprogs were impeccably behaved from then on. This was such a change from the routine that the Teaching Assistant came up to me and commented on how unusual it was to get them to do as they are told without mayhem breaking loose. After this little ego boost I, of course, decided to share my professional views on classroom management with my colleague in order to help him with a difficult class. I did this with regular pisstaking and little jibes to the effect that some people can command respect whereas some people simply cannot.

At this point the great deity of Poetic Justice decided to step in and put a stop to my immature behaviour. Sure enough, for my next 4 classes of the week, kids I know and have bullied and drilled into fascist stormtrooper standard discipline, decided to run riot and ignore me completely. I feel humbled.

Laowai Life: It’s not China

As a consequence of losing my interest in the little details that make China what it is, I have started to do as many expats do and occasionally decide that I need just a few hours that are not… well, not Chinese.

Changchun is not Beijing or Shanghai where a determined xenophobe could spend a year with nearly no interaction with the locals but it has a few hiding spots. One of these is the swimming pool in the leafy German compound where you can swim and doze far away from the noise and the weirdness. The drawback is that after 2pm you get German children running about.

Another place to go is swanky hotels when they hold a themed food night (Mexican, Italian etc). This does misfire a bit though as you start off ordering stuff in crap mistoned Chinese and, instead of going through a few mimics or staring at you while they work out what you might have been saying if you hadn’t fucked up the tones, the staff confirm your order in flawless English.

I am however, limiting my time in designated expat boozers. I was helped in this by the world cup and the accompanying “football nights”. Though I try to adapt to places and people there are a few principles that I think should be maintained at all costs and are not contextual or relative:
-Do to others as you would have done onto yourself.
-A human life is sacred
-Suffering is felt by all
-People should be judged by what they have done, not who they are
-Footie fans are morons and pubs with widescreen TV’s showing football should be firebombed.

Know Your Masters: Guanxi

China being a Commie dictatorship there are 2 things that are constant here. The bureaucracy is vast and intrusive and nearly everything is forbidden or, at best, requires a Homeric struggle with officials to be authorized.

Given these hurdles, how come China is booming alarmingly? Right wingers have more than their fair share of wrong calls on their rap sheet but I tend to agree with them on the notion that bureaucracy and legislation tend to hinder more than help business. So how do Chinese entrepreneurs drag their country into the present when they have all these rules to abide to? In short, they don’t. They get around the whole lot with Guanxi.

Guanxi is what allowed me to work here. I waltzed in here with a tourist visa, landed a job and got to work without even having to cross a border and apply for a working permit. My passport got taken away from me and returned in 48 hours with a new visa and working permit and I didn’t have to even sign an official from. This would be impossible in any European country if you are not a spook or a Mafiosi. Here, mere mortals can pull this stunt thanks to guanxi.

Guanxi is not just simply corruption, though bribery is a large element of it. It is also the art of developing contacts and giving and owing favors. There are elements of the French piston system where it is expected that you will help out friends and family. Here you can develop these friends and it is an important part of business. My boss has got good guanxi so he can get things done very quickly. Owning a school I suspect a few of our kids (the dumb annoying ones particularly) are there as a favor to people who help out the business or who one day might.

Guanxi is what makes China work and prosper. It is also why the government is so irredeemably corrupt. They tend to have periodical crackdowns on the worst excesses but in a way the authorities know that to do things to the letter of the law would make China jump back 20 years. Plus they would lose most of their workforce. People here want to work for the government because it is very lucrative. On the basis they had to pay to get the post, or will have to pay it back someway one day, it even seems fair.

The flip side of guanxi, besides the usual problems of having a corrupt administration, is that it might hurt China business wise in the future. China is already on thin ice with regards to world trade because of copyright infringements and other issues. The WTO could crack down and their big trading partners might have to impose trade sanctions if there starts to be some serious political upset on unfair trade practices and domestic job losses. For the Chinese, business rules are things to be circumvented or ways by officials to make money. China might end up in a Catch-22 situation where it has to reduce the omnipresence of guanxi in Chinese life in order to access capital and markets but can’t as it would mean paralyzing the country.

WTF: Pajamas, Snoopy and gay kids with guns.

The pajamas is something that I quite like here. As I have mentioned before. When it’s warm there is a great street life here. People go out to eat off the pavement or walk around the block. What I find great it that some of these get ready for bed beforehand then scoot out for a walk therefore you will see lots of blokes in jammies and slippers buying stuff at the local store. I love the idea and I am trying to convince people to have a pajama night out of our own to show that we can adapt.

Snoopy. As I have said before, cutesy schlock is always present in China. I mentioned what the girls wear in my last post and I should point out that the blokes are not exempt. On a doomed hunt for trousers that would fit my long, European legs and my fat European arse I was often confronted and confused by shops with a “Men’s clothing” sign in English (not necessarily for laowais but often to lend a “It’s western therefore trendy” cachet to the place) yet had a window display of frilly pinky crap that only teenage girls or Abba fans would ever wear. Having seen Chinese males in nightclubs and trendy bars these were in fact men’s clothing stores.

This been said, the schlock sometimes appears in really odd places. Plod cars are everywhere here and often parked haphazardly while their drivers do something important like getting free meals in restaurants. I was recently surprised to see that one such driver had decided to put Snoopy seat covers in his squad car. Who says a police state can’t have a sensitive side.

The gay kids with guns comes from observing my charges and the kids whose school entrance is in the courtyard of my apartment block and who delight in being loud at 8am when I am hungover. They are perfectly normal in most ways but have surprised and scared me recently. Chinese kids love to show off their toys and the boys amongst them are heavily into the weaponlike stuff. As such I have seen sprogs walk past my window with the usual slingshots, water pistols, toy guns and some less usual like nunchaks, extendable police baton and full size realistic replicas of World War 2 grease guns.

The gay part comes from what some of my kids have decided to wear in class for the 2 months in Changchun when it’s not bloody freezing. I have mentioned the slightly effeminate stuff adult men wear but the kids take it to a whole new level. Amusingly it s often the cocky class clown/tough kid who will wear the gayest stuff. By gay I don’t mean a bit pink or frilly but 1985, Frankie Goes To Hollywood concert in Brighton gay. It’s quite funny to see a kid try to make his peers fear him while wearing a black mesh wife-beater and fake leather shorts. A bit creepy too.

The one thing I can conclude from the WTF stuff is that one day the concept of kitsch will make it to China and that is going to be very, very painful.

That’s all folks. I will try to be more regular.

Take care,