The Garlic Dog Dinner, & Other Curly Chinese Tails

Sun Dec 1, 2002 11:14pm

I’ve just finished a 2 month stint out at a private boarding school teaching primary students aged 5-15. As a previous email might have suggested, it was an interesting experience. In one of my first lessons a student held up a sign saying “UFO”, and pointed out the window at the sky, exclaiming “SOS!” over and over. Unfortunately, no one came to our rescue, so we had to make the best of it. By the end of my time at the school, some of them loved me, some of them hated me. The feeling was generally mutual. Class 6A was my nemesis. The friendly laid-back approach – so successful with Grade 1 – failed, so I had to resort to increasing levels of ruthlessness to maintain my grip on power. I admit I felt slightly Evil(TM) when I threw a comic book out of the third floor window on a rainy day. Perhaps there’s a role for me in the next X-Men movie.

I basically enjoyed my time at the school. When you tell a bunch of kids that on Thursday the Very Hungry Caterpillar ate 4 pears *and* an icecream *and* a cake, and there are audible gasps of amazement, it’s hard not be amazed yourself. And when you teach wide-eyed Grade Ones the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and they all cheer and pump their little fists in the air at the end, it’s hard not to agree that the philosophy of the song is indeed something to smile about.

The suggestibility of kids can be worrying though. Already at age 10, students have decided that “I don’t really like Falun Gong”, “I don’t like USA” and “I hate Japanese”, even as they doodle Japanese anime and dream of being NBA basketballers just like Yao Ming. One of the most fascinating (and disturbing) experiences I’ve had so far was on a school excursion with hundreds of my students to a revolutionary museum celebrating the life of Comrade Kong Fang Seng, a Han Chinese man who devoted – and sacrificed – his life to improving the lot of the Tibetan people. The Communist Party is officially atheist, but there were clear parallels to a saint’s shrine, including statues and relics (in the form of his shoes, glasses, pillow and half of the other things he owned).

After the student drill sergeants (complete with striped badges) had arranged the classes neatly from grades one to six, a guide appeared from the museum with a megaphone and for the next 20 minutes lectured us on the great man. One of the teachers who spoke some English translated for me and I learned how the comrade left his sick wife and children behind to help the Tibetans, giving his government pay away and even selling his blood so that three Tibetan orphans could go to school. There were lots of little anecdotes from his life, showing us how humble and kind and generous he was. Eventually the guide finished with his death in 1994 in a tragic vehicle accident while going to dig a well, and two children presented an offering of flowers to the white statue at the museum entrance. As they walked up the stairs, a teacher barked an order and the kids arms snapped up in unison in a “Heil Comrade” salute.



I’m now back at the university teaching adults at International House. Though it’s not called that any more, since we were apparently sold the other night to a mysterious consortium known only by the acronym T.A.F.E. Still, as one of the other teachers said to me, they can’t be any worse than our old boss. In a strange twist I’ve found myself an agitator for workers’ rights since I was appointed the teachers union representative a couple of months ago. Unfortunately I never managed to find a few extra spines to hand around, so the position has largely been a ceremonial one, even if I have given our middle management director a headache or two. (Ironically, she’s now got me doing promotions.)

Teaching university students is a lot easier than teaching kids, though they’re often just as naïve about how the world outside China works. The fact that they think I am “so cool” is proof enough of that. I’m not sure if my apparent resemblance to Lenin has anything to do with it, though conceivably it might explain why I’ve had to fight off a disturbed colleague, a married woman, tearful 12-year-old girls giving me their phone numbers, a couple of near-marriage proposals and dozens of questions asking me to compare the beauty of Chinese and Australian women. I went on a weekend speaking tour with another teacher a while back and we were treated like film stars wherever we went – even to the point of getting mobbed for autographs at the end of question time. I did get asked why I was so handsome (by a 10 year old boy), but I have a funny feeling the attention isn’t due to my stunning good looks.

The questions range from the banal to the bizarre. A common one, especially lately with the 16th Communist Party Congress just completed, asks me to compare the virtues of democracy and communism. Needless to say, you have to be careful. I try to be truthful, if diplomatic. “I know very little about how the government works in China” is a good one. It’s one of the times you feel the constraints on your freedom. Some of the other teachers found themselves detained by the Red Army when they strayed into a military facility while hiking, though ‘entertained’ is probably a better word, since they played ping pong and drank tea with the soldiers for a couple of hours until the word came for them to be released. Too bad I missed out. Aside from occasional incidents like that and the green card we have to carry around with us, mostly it’s the freedom of speech infringements that you notice. Like when Google is blocked, to stop you from doing counter-revolutionary searches such as

Actually, I’m not being that economical with the truth when I say I’m not really sure what Communism is. When the president of China says that the country should “establish an employment system that’s based on the market and guided by the principle that labourers will find jobs of their own” you have to wonder, especially when such statements co-exist with others about the evils of capitalism. Mostly communism appears to consist of an oligarchy of old men mouthing phrases that no one believes any more. Despite the fact that the government is still incredibly powerful and corrupt – everything in China, from train tickets to business deals depend on guanxi, or connections – communism’s power as an idea seems to be dead, or at least on life-support. Surprising given the indoctrination. But Chinese people are the quintessential capitalists, willing to ignore just about any government regulation if they can make some money and get away with it; perhaps that explains it.


I haven’t had time to do much travelling, though I managed to get to Shanghai in October for a few days. A few weeks ago I went an hour by train to Taishan, China’s most sacred mountain, which emperors have climbed for thousands of years to make sacrifices to the gods. I climbed from the temple at the base to the summit and stayed overnight at the top to see the sunrise, before walking down again. Unfortunately the haze didn’t lift, but the trip was still worth the frozen nose and painful legs. The way consists of thousands upon thousands of stairs. The final staircase – to Heaven no less – is impressive, towering above you like a ladder to the sky. Every rock and tree on the way is layered with calligraphy and legend, the landscape soaked with meaning.

I’ve posted some photos of Taishan, among other sights, to my website. (I appear to have some guanxi of my own, as I can now access it.) You’ll find them under the China 2002 album. Of course, they’re for members only, which allows me to segue nicely to a plug for my mailing list. Apart from the photos, you also get the occasional haiku or opium-induced reflection from me, in addition to my travel updates. To join, don’t send any money (well, if you must). Just click your way to and enter your email address.

Oh yeah, and the dog was disappointing. It looked a bit like beef pastrami, and was served cold in minced garlic. I love garlic, but the dog wasn’t distinctive or moreish enough to overcome my squeamishness about eating intelligent and/or endangered animals – unlike python, which I’ve enjoyed, despite wondering where it came from.

Until next time,

“There is only one China” — sentence produced by Grade 5 student copying ‘There is only one child in my family’ from the board.

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