The lights went out

The power that doesn’t be

We first have to rewind things to yesterday. A couple of days ago I was told that I was going to the junior middle school to see a public lesson. But just before lunch yesterday I was informed that the time had been changed to 3.50pm and there was something about performances.

When Mrs Tiggywinkle and I got to the junior middle school, we found that we were watching a school concert in English performed by the pupils. It was the usual sort of fare and had to include China’s alternative national anthem, the mind-numbingly saccharine Take Me To Your Heart. At the end we were asked to say a few words, and then we were asked to give a performance.

When I’d been told about performances, I thought I’d go tooled up with something in case, so I had with me a copy of John Pomfret’s poem The Choice. I read out a short section, and that kept everyone happy. And probably mostly mystified as to the meaning.

We went out for dinner with some of the teachers afterwards and had a somewhat overly convivial evening.

When I got up this morning, I found that the power was off again. A new bridge into town is being built and every so often some electrical work needs to be done. This has meant cutting off all power to the town usually for a period of twelve hours. This was especially annoying today because I mostly had the day off. My little darlings are sitting school exams.

Meanwhile in home news, I see the Dear Leader has ordered the abolition of the Child Support Agency, a <span class = “sarcasm”>much loved</span> or­gan­is­ation which seemed to be a cross between social workers and the Mafia. The idea was that it’d get reluctant fathers to pay maintenance for their children. Instead of going after the bad fathers, it seemed to have a penchant for going after the more responsible ones and then making them cough up more money. Easy hit; quota filled.


Things we overlook

It could’ve been a bang-up job

It’s very easy in China to lose track of time and miss various dates that wouldn’t pass unnoticed in the West. As usual, I’d forgotten about Guy Fawkes Night. Although I half remembered it this year, Michael Quinion mentioned something that I’d overlooked. This year is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

But why after 400 years does anyone still bother? On the one hand, we have a group of Catholic conspirators who wanted to blow up Parliament. But in our modern, secular society, anti-Catholicism is an irrelevance (excluding Northern Ireland, of course). On the other hand, we have the triumph of the police state and human rights abuse as a consequence of the failed plot. So it’s all about saying “Boo!” to the Catholics, and “Yay!” to police brutality.

Ah ha! you exclaim. You’re just being a girly revisionist!

Nope. I’m just making an observation from a different angle.

Besides, no one cares what happened 400 years ago. These days, Bonfire Night is an excuse for some fun.

It’s curious, but coincidental that Guy Fawkes should’ve been caught not long after Samhain (1st November), which is the Celtic festival that marks the first day of winter and the Celtic New Year. Firecrackers are one means of scaring off demons at a time of the year when the boundaries between the natural and supernatural worlds were meant to be especially thin.

Oh good grief! you exclaim. You’re not about to come up with some daft conspiracy theory about druids and Guy Fawkes, are you?

No, but it sounds like the basis for some kind of conspiracy theory novel. Just the sort of complete bollocks Dan Brown would write – badly, of course.

Do say: Pass the sky rockets.

Don’t say: 90 day detention period.

Gone fishin’

Waiting with baited hook

At lunch with the headmaster last week, fishing came up for some reason and we were invited to go fishing with him this weekend.

Actually, the headmaster never turned up. He had a “meeting”. Nor did Mrs Tiggywinkle, who used the other stock excuse of needing a rest. Consequence of the shock news on Friday.

We went to a nearby fishing centre which was an artificial lake set in artificial grounds. While the two guys either side of our party reeled in several fish, we caught nothing, although I did get the remains of a small plastic bag. We were told that the other fishermen were using shrimps as bait.

In the end, the school bought us some fish. We had some for lunch at a restaurant, and the rest was cooked up for us to take away.

I see from The Guardian that the government is still banging on about this ID card thing. The irony about living in China, which is a police state, is that things here are a lot more relaxed than they are in the West. If laws in the West are made to be broken, here they’re made to be ignored.

More on those mascots

Freaky babies.

EastSouthWestNorth Blog reports various comments about the mascots for the Beijing Olympics, including a poll on in which the favourite mascot comes a distant second to “They’re all lame”.

I’m sure they’ll be hanging in their millions from the rucksacks of school children across the country.

Actually, even twentysomething Chinese can have some pretty childish accessories on their rucksacks. I once saw a girl with a couple of small inflated hammers hanging from hers, and large numbers festoon their rucksacks with miniature fluffy toys.

20.06.13. Tidied up the text alignment and added tags. The London Olympics didn’t manage to do any better with their weird symbol which looked like Lisa Simpson giving oral pleasure.

I didn’t really have a particular opinion about the mascots myself, but the Olympics, like all sporting events, is a massive shrug to me.

Ave atque vale

Goodbye Gao San?

I see that I’ve had a visit from a random passer-by. I suppose I should remember that I’m not just talking to myself. That’d be crazy.

It’s been a busy day today because an inspector called from Beijing. Once again I’ve managed to dodge that bullet, but other issues came up which distracted the inspector from her poking and prying.

But there’s news as well. Mrs Tiggywinkle and I were to have a meeting this afternoon with the Senior 3 teachers about what we’re doing with the students in the college entrance exam classes.

As an aside, I should explain that Chinese high schools cover the final three years of schooling. At the end, students do the college entrance exam which determines whether they go to university and which university they will attend. It’s the only exam at high school level that counts for anything, although overall they do more exams than I’ve had hot dinners.

Anyway, students have been complaining about going to Mrs Tiggywinkle’s classes (and, no doubt, mine), and the results from the midterm exams had come in. The students in our classes had shown no improvement. Now that’s no big surprise. It takes quite a bit of time for students to improve their proficiency in a foreign language.

It’s clear that the Chinese want our classes to stop, but they were persuaded to let us try for another couple of weeks, but doing reading, not writing. Students have been complaining about all the writing they’ve had to do.

I can understand things from the Chinese perspective. I was surprised when we were told we were going to teach college entrance exam classes because that’s a wholly Chinese enterprise. I’m not surprised that the Chinese want to put an end to it. I doubt that they wanted us to be teaching such classes in the first place.

We have to the end of the month, but it’s not going to make any difference. Already in Class 15, it’s been clear that the students don’t want to be doing the class. At best, we might be left with a small rump of students, but I doubt whether it’ll be enough for two teachers.

So what happens next? I don’t know, but the school appears to have some idea about getting us to teach some other classes, possibly Senior 1. I smell “con­vers­ation” classes. Ack!

A Dream of Red Mansions I

Precious children

I’ve come to the end of the first volume of A Dream of Red Mansions. Like the other classic Chinese novels I’ve read, this one seems to be rambling and aimless. In fact, volume 1 is about 600 pages long. I know where things are meant to be going, but they don’t seem to be in any hurry to get there.

So far, it’s really been a tale of precious (in the bad sense) adolescents living in a world of painfully petty social etiquette. It’s an odd sort of world, too, in which everyone has a bunch of maids running around after them, but the maids are not exactly subservient.

What’s the deal with Baoyu? He’s definitely a girly boy, but perhaps not in the gay sense. It’s hard to tell. He’s only marginally less precious than the consumptive Lin Daiyu who spends most of her time, it seems, blubbing and having tantrums. As is typical with the Chinese, there seems to be no reaction that’s not an extreme reaction.

Overall, this is a world of the immature. The main characters are in their mid-teens, which means that their parents are probably only in their thirties, and the Old Ancentress (as she is called) is probably about 48.

Well, there are three more volumes to go so things may get better. Actually, I should say, “become clearer”, because right now the story remains aimless.

The first three classic Chinese novels haven’t received my seal of critical approval. They all suffer from being long and rambling. The Three Kingdoms fell flat once the original protagonists had died. The Journey to the West was boringly repetitive once you got to the journey itself. Outlaws of the Marsh turned into a repeat screening of The Three Kingdoms (having been written by the same person).

The fog

Cutting it with a knife.

I’m not sure whether it’s a long time since I’ve seen fog this thick, or whether I’ve never actually seen fog this thick. The visibility is down to about 5m at best.

[19.06.13. I well remember this, and crossing the road to the school with some trep­id­ation because the cars and trucks didn’t seem to be slowing down or turning their lights on. Again, how were people not splattered all over the road?]

Dramatis personae I

Who’s who.

For those of you who are playing the away game, I should clarify my previous entry [Deleted. –ed.] with just who Laurel is and why she went on the run.

Laurel arrived late in China because of visa problems so she missed out on the exciting workshop that we had in Changzhou. Even when she did know what the programme involved, she was more inclined to do her own thing in class. This meant reduplicating her classes teaching conversation to Mexicans, which meant not so much class as a party.

Anyway, this was contrary to what we’re meant to be doing, at which point the whole thing became Laurel vs. Mrs Tiggywinkle, with the school largely siding with Laurel who’d played them as they’d never been played before.

Eventually Beijing made a decision. Laurel was out and had two days to leave. Then a few hours later she was told she had 45 days to leave (that was the school’s doing); but rather than wait for that period of time to elapse, she left.

19.06.13. I deleted the previous entry, which said nothing anyway. It was another reminder that some of these entries would’ve been better on Facebook or Twitter.


Could things have been more inauspicious?
It was raining yesterday morning and got worse as I headed into the station. The trip to Suzhou was nice and fast, but when I went to buy a return ticket, I had to come back today on the 10.52am train.
The weather in Suzhou was about the same as Changzhou. I got a motorised three-wheeler from the station, but it seems that the driver only had a vague idea where he meant to be going and was possibly semi-literate. I had written Suzhou Middle School in characters along with the address. The driver stopped a couple of times to have a look at the address again.
Fiona was waiting at the gate, but things were getting worse. She wasn’t feeling well and the loo in her flat was blocked.
I dumped my stuff and went for a wander up Shiquan Street which seems to be Suzhou’s equivalent of Sanlitun. As I was wandering round, the weather improved, but it was very humid and hazy.
When I got back to the flat, we watched Flightplan with Jodie Foster as the hysterical mother with the missing child that could not be found. She stormed up and down the plane like a prima donna who’d read Parenting Skills for the 21st Century: Secrets of the Soccer Mums. I thought she was a pain and the movie unnecessarily po-faced.
I had tea at Pizza Hut (deep sea eel pizza), but it started raining as I was going there.
Didn’t sleep well last night because I got buzzed and bitten by a mosquito – five times. (This is not to say that other bites won’t manifest themselves. Sometimes there’s a delayed reaction.)
This morning I didn’t have much time before I had to depart, so I went in search of a copy of the South China Morning Post. Fiona recommended the Bamboo Grove Hotel where there was one copy of yesterday’s left. Hurrah! By the time I got back to the school, the workers were still messing around with the plumbing. There seemed to be nothing wrong, but the water was still only draining from the loo very slowly.
I left not long afterwards for the short trip back to Changzhou. I need to go back to Suzhou when the weather’s better (and Fiona), and also to spend much more time there.
19.06.13. Changed the caregory of the post and added tags.

Chinese characteristics

The dao of China

As most books will tell you, China is a very diverse country. There is the myth of the unified Chinese state, which was behind the events narrated in The Three Kingdoms; but in reality, the north and south are different, and the centre is different again. Even today, the country is not quite as unified as most people would like to think. The central government has become progressively weaker since 1976, while provincial governments are more likely to ignore Beijing’s diktats and do what they like.

There’s a lot of civil unrest, but that’s local dissatisfaction. Probably everyone digs out quotes from Outlaws of the Marsh (aka The Water Margin), declares themselves loyal to the emperor, and gets medieval on corrupt officials. I’ve seen quite a few protests, but these are of the authorised kind. Everyone sits or stands around, and nothing much happens.

It’s all part of the massive changes in this country. The government likes to remind everyone that the country is developing rapidly and getting richer. But there are still a lot of places in China where things haven’t improved, and China is still a Third World country in terms of average incomes. There is a massive disparity between the people with the money, who are typically (vulgar) conspicuous consumers, and people on more modest incomes who are more mean and miserable than they need to be.

Socialism with Chinese characteristics is really just unbridled capitalism. The corruption, which is often at the root of people’s disaffection with local officials, is endemic. In Outlaws of the Marsh, the outlaws have all crossed swords with corrupt officials, yet they are corrupters themselves. When any of the characters are imprisoned, they lavishly distribute bribes to the guards and prison officials. The heroes who are meant to be fighting corruption are corrupters themselves. But it’s all part of the culture.

Down the centuries, students of logic must’ve asked their teachers, “Is this for real?” until one day someone made the observation that if the Chinese had invented logic, it’d be just like Western logic. Wrong. If the Chinese had invented logic, it’d be arse-backwards.

There are no specialist tradesmen in China. If something needs to be fixed, and you have the tools, you’d probably be as the skilled professional who’d come to look at it. The repair was often temporary at best, and it wasn’t unusual for it to make things worse.

The old 938s from Tongzhou to Beijing may have rattled along, but at least they had plenty of seats. The new 938s wouldn’t even have had half the seating capacity of the older buses, which would’ve forced even more people to stand. I wonder whether there’s a logical reason for this such as an old bus designer saying to a younger one, “Very nice, but where’s the room for the stretchers?” because some official had had the bright idea of using buses as ambulances in case of war.

Basically, nothing here quite works properly. Buildings rise at a phenomenal rate, but the quality of work and materials would probably shorten a Western buildings inspector’s life expectancy by twenty years. The blocks of flats go up, but there never seems to be anyone to fill in them. What is new looks five years old within a year.

But that’s the dao of China.

18.06.13. Edited the formatting and made some minor additions to the text.

Looking at the paragraph about wealth in China, nothing has really changed in nearly eight years. I’ve seen more luxury cars in Wuxi than I’ve ever seen in my life – Porsches, Aston Martins, Audis, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis. And alongside them go the people who are too cheap to replace the brakes on their electric scooters.

The Western press often talks about the Chinese middle class, but they seem to be referring to the people who can afford Audi A4s, A6s or better, and series 5 and 7 BMWs, which are way outside my price range and yet I am middle class. This group would appear to be closer to middle management. They have a bit more money and a limited amount of power, but they’re not the elite.

I’m not sure whether China has a Chinese middle class (how would they be ident­ified?) or the bulk of the population mostly inhabits the ends of the financial spec­trum. There is also the little matter of middle-class culture which I have yet to see here. Among its characteristics would be courtesy (my car does not make me blind to other road users) and consideration for others (I know to keep my voice down, wait patiently in a queue for my turn, not have a lit cigarette in a lift, encourage my child­ren not to say “老外”, and not spit).

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.