The Great Equalizer

Throughout Chinese Rocks a number of theories about ex-pat life (both in China and in general) are put forth. One such theory is “The Great Equalizer” theory. This theory states that ex-pats tend to make friendships faster than most people, and often with people pretty far removed from the social circles they would normally move in back home.

Here are some book excepts which elaborate on that theory…

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“After Liz told us that she’d been a public health official in the US and came from a very proper WASP background, it occurred to me that if we’d met in another time or place, we never would’ve been friends simply because of our different backgrounds.

Yet here we were, dumping slices of lamb, bean sprouts and leafy bundles of kai lan (Chinese broccoli) into a bubbling vat, brought together by the bond of sharing a common experience, one that I thought wasn’t unlike being in combat or playing on a championship sports team.

China, I thought, was the Great Equalizer.

And so it was that my circle of friends now included several female Chinese English teachers, a 12-year-old girl, a Christian from Wisconsin, an unemployed single father with some dependency issues, a police captain and a math professor.”

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“And furthermore, based on the way she’d latched onto me, I was beginning to think that my initial assessment of her had been wrong and her interest in me wasn’t as pure as I’d expected.

If this was the case, it’d be a complicated development indeed.

She surprised me even more accompanying Rob, Orson, Wolf, Christos and myself to La Bamba after the show where we had a late-night feast of nachos, pizza and burritos over several beers while ribbing each other with friendly jokes in the time-honoured tradition of drunken male bonding.

Sunshine sat, watched with amusement and often tried to join in the conversation. My gut instinct told me she was a nice, typical “good girl” Chinese university student, but typical Chinese good girls didn’t stay out until three o’ clock in the morning with a guy they’d just met; they didn’t go to places like La Bamba at four o’ clock in the morning with five drunk foreign guys and they sure as hell didn’t hang out at rock and roll bars.”

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“One of my unintended tablemates became an unlikely friend. I was dining alone one night when a fortyish man with short blonde hair politely asked if he could join me.

We sat in awkward silence for several minutes before mutually deciding that we’d be more comfortable making small talk than just ignoring one other.

Hermann, an architect who worked for a Wudaokou-based company, was an avid punk fan who recognized me from the Place. Despite our vastly-different backgrounds, the Munich native and I had a lot in common and became good friends over the course of many an evening chat at the Garden.

I found it fascinating that he encountered many of the same difficulties in his job that I did in mine: the disorganization, inefficiency, last-minute changes and lack of communication with which I often dealt weren’t unique to education in China, but rather a primary characteristic of working here regardless of your field.

“Given a choice between two ways of doing something,” he said, “the Chinese will always choose the middle one. I don’t have much problems with culture difference in my personal life. But in my work? It gives me headaches.”

His current assignment was to design an apartment complex with retractable swimming pools for balconies. “What they don’t understand is that swimming pools need a certain depth—at least one meter,” he told me. “So if one floor has a pool, the one below will have the same pool obstructing their window. I tell this to my boss and he just says, ‘Now is not the time to complicate things. Just design it. It will probably never get built, anyway.’”

“At least you’re building a very interesting portfolio,” I observed.

“Ah, ja. But in Munich, I was an artist! I could walk down the streets, point to a building and say, ‘I built that.’ Now I live off commissions. Nothing I design actually gets built because most of it isn’t even possible!”

One thing that we didn’t share was a love for Chinese girls. The topic of Propaganda came up one evening and we agreed that the music was terrible and it wasn’t really a suitable place for old guys like ourselves.

“I mean, it’s an okay place if you like some Chinese girls,” Hermann said, “but I don’t.”

“Well, I just like girls, period. I have to admit that over last year, I’ve developed a particular fondness for Chinese girls, but all girls are okay by me,” I said.

“Yeah, but I don’t like girls,” he smiled.

Got it. This was yet another example of my Great Equalizer Theory at work: it was highly unlikely that I’d have become friends with a gay German architect in Canada—I just didn’t move in those types of social circles.”

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“Fifteen minutes later, a tall, well-dressed and beautiful woman with long flowing hair and a bright smile entered and headed directly for me. While I was just hoping that she’d be reasonably good-looking, this woman was gorgeous.

I obviously didn’t make the same stunning first impression. Before she even sat down, she scanned me up and down:

“Are you a musician?”

“Uh, no.”

She furrowed her brow: “You look like a musician.”

I was such a putz: she’d shown up wearing clothes that probably cost more than I made in a month and I was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a snarling boar’s head.

I felt more than a little out of my league.

Under the circumstances, things went well. Amy had studied in Vancouver and had actually lived in Victoria for three years, which gave us some instant common ground. She’d previously been married to a native Victorian: her son had been born there and she still kept a condo in Vancouver.

The picture was starting to come together: the car, the business trip to France, the condo in Vancouver—she was rich.

“I own an advertising agency, but I also make a lot of money in real estate,” she said as she sipped her Long Island. “Tomorrow, I have to sell my spare house because I’ve only used it twice. But I’m getting 600,000 for it and that’s more than I paid for it, so it was worth buying.”

A millionaire?

We had a nice time and there were no awkward pauses during our two-hour chat. I figured that on a dating scale of 1 to 10—ten meaning that you get laid and one being that she’s not only ugly, boring and stupid, but you fight with her, too—this was a 6.5.

She definitely warranted a second date. The only real problem was that she triggered something of an inferiority complex: I felt like I was on a date with Julia Roberts or something. She was beautiful, rich, worldly and sophisticated and I was just some schmuck in a rock and roll T-shirt who had 3000RMB to my name until I got paid by the CMA.

Still, I couldn’t say that I’d ever dated a millionaire before and could now add that to the list of novel experiences that I’d had in China.”

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” I spent my final night at the Garden: I had to say goodbye to Sunshine.

Once upon a time, I’d nearly fallen in love with her. While I’d gotten past those feelings a long time ago, I never forgot why I’d had them in the first place: she was one of the most remarkable people that I’d met during my time in China and all conventional wisdom said that nice girls like her didn’t hang out with bad guys like me.

But she didn’t judge a soul and we became friends despite my obvious and glaring flaws.

She’d recently gotten drunk for the first time ever at her graduation ceremony—I’d have loved to have seen that—and had already managed to find a job in Shanghai with the Shanghai Bureau of Civic Affairs, which basically made her a low-level civic bureaucrat.

Shanghai was in the process of hosting the 2010 World Expo and her main job was to mail free Expo tickets to local families. While I kidded her a great deal about spending four years in university to get a job licking envelopes, I couldn’t help but think how remarkable it would be to know her in 10 years time.

We weren’t alone, either. Hermann was there because, well, Hermann was always there and tonight he was in the company of a gentleman friend.

He used a gay networking site to meet his companions, and while they were invariably out-of-towners, it didn’t bother him because he traveled everywhere for his job.

His friend was visiting from Shanghai and he and Sunshine talked a great deal about the Expo. We were joined by Kerry Hammett who’d read Rob’s article and had sent me a message asking if we could meet to say goodbye.

And so it was that I spent my last night in China in the company of a recently-graduated university student, a gay couple and a 44-year-old metalhead from Chicago.”

The Great Equalizer.

The New Years Giveaway

  It’s been a great first year for the book in that we’ve received a lot of support from our friends. But our main goal is to reach a broader audience. In order to achieve that, we need some brutally honest public feedback.

To that end, we’ve listed the book on Story Cartel. For a limited time we are offering free downloads of the book in exchange for your honest opinion.

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 As an added bonus, reviewers will be entered to win one of three 10 dollar gift certificates for Amazon.

 Here is the link to the download site. And be sure to check out some of the other great free books from indie authors while you’re there.

 http://storycartel.com/books/533/chinese-rocks/

 Thanks again for the support and all the best in 2014!

The Day Jimmy Came to Town

 The following is a true story from Chapter 43.

 

 

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I would have to be satisfied with that for now. The next time I saw her, we went for hotpot in Wudaokou. “You remember that band I played for you when you stayed at my place?”

“Uh huh. Your favourite band, right?”

“Right, ever since I was 15. Well, I met their guitar player last week.”

Yes, incredibly I had actually met Led Zeppelin guitarist and bona fide rock legend Jimmy Page. If you could have given me a choice of any person in the world to meet, I would have probably chosen him: this was bigger than meeting the President of the United States, the Pope and the Queen of England at the same time.

I was grading papers at Helen’s Cafe, a cheap Wudaokou student hangout, on a snowy Tuesday night when my phone pinged.

It was Rob:

“Jimmy Page is at the Green Door right now. Get your ass down here. Tell no one.”

I would have been less surprised if he’d told me he’d just killed a prostitute and needed my help disposing of the body—that at least seemed within the realm of possibility.

Jimmy Page at the Place did not.

While it was only a 20-minute walk, I immediately jumped into a cab.

The legendary guitarist was in town to negotiate a deal to headline a proposed event deemed “The Show of Peace Concert,” an ambitious global charity show that would be broadcast live from the Bird’s Nest in October.

In addition to Page, the event was slated to feature performances by Aerosmith, Lady Gaga, Prince and neophyte heavyweights like Katy Perry and Beyonce, among several dozen others. While he was here, he’d made some inquiries about where he could take in some live music, and since the Place was pretty much the only place in town you could catch a halfway decent show on a Tuesday night, he’d found his way over.

When I arrived, there was definitely something out of the ordinary going on: Tuesday nights were Zoomin’ Nights—a platform for experimental music—and it never drew a crowd this big. It wasn’t huge, but there a lot of faces there that I’d never seen before.

Rob was sitting at the bar. “Where is he?” I asked.

“He went upstairs, I think. Can you believe this? Jimmy Page at the Green Door? How cool is that?”

It was unbelievable, actually.

A few minutes later, he appeared from around the corner. If not for the fact that I’d seen him perform at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, I wouldn’t have recognized him: he’d been out of the public spotlight for a long time—he was now in his mid-sixties, and my visual associations of him were mostly from the Led Zeppelin days.

He looked good, though, with his long, curly grey hair tied back in a ponytail and clad in a black leather jacket.

I smiled and lifted my beer glass towards him—he winked and I was giddy as a school girl.

“You got a wink from Jimmy Page,” said Rob. “How’s that for awesome?”

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I really had that whole “I’m not worthy” feeling, though: I mean, what did you say to a guy who’d been a hero of yours for more than half your life?

When I saw him slowly working his way towards the door, I knew I had to say something: I would never get a chance like this again, and if I didn’t take it, I would regret it forever.

I walked up to him and said, “Welcome to China” and instantly felt like the world’s biggest putz. Never mind the fact that he’d obviously been to China before, but that was one of the more tiresome things one got used to hearing in the Middle Kingdom.

Nevertheless, he said, “Thanks” and shook my hand. I swore that I would never wash that hand again.

“I just wanted to say that Led Zeppelin has been my favourite band for pretty much my entire life, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank you personally for all the great music.”

“Well, thanks man. I appreciate it,” he said. “It seems like there’s some pretty great music here as well.”

“Yeah, yeah! There’s a great music scene here—a lot of good bands playing a diverse range of styles. A lot of it is pretty innovative, actually.”

“Well, that’s the way it should be. That’s what we always tried to do.”

Rob had a similar conversation and we floated on clouds for the rest of the night: at the end of the day, Jimmy Page turned out to just be a fellow rock and roll fan. That was the coolest thing of all—he was “one of us.” I don’t think that either of us talked to him for more than five minutes, but it was a great moment.

Fever

Chinese Rocks takes place between 2005 and 2010-a time when China experienced some landmark moments. None of those moments had a greater impact on the world stage than the 2008 Olympics.  In this except we re-visit the madness that the 2008 Olympics.

On a personal note, we hope that you will take the time to support Olympic wrestling. Wrestling has been on integral part of the Olympics since their inception, and without the Olympics a lot of fine athletes have no platform to showcase their skills to a global audience.

http://saveolympicwrestling.org/

 

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I’d done no small amount of complaining about the Olympics in the months leading up to their arrival: the ban on outdoor seating, Midi’s cancellation, BUMP’s heightened security and the new visa regulations that forced several friends to leave the country had all given me reason to hate the upcoming 17 days that lie ahead, and moreover, hate the International Olympic Committee for even giving Beijing the Games in the first place.

Nevertheless, as they grew closer, I did have to appreciate some of the good things that the Olympics brought with them:

To ease traffic and improve air quality, the city government had decreed that only half of the cars in the city would be allowed on the road each day. Cars with even-numbered license plates would alternate with cars with odd-numbered plates every other day.

Three new subway lines had opened, including the Line 10, which had a stop just outside of the South Gate and provided direct service to Haidian Park, Zhongguancun, Sanlitun and CBD.

And I had to admit that it was fun watching Beijing getting all hussied up like a gold-digging tramp on her first date with a big spender. Reminders of the Olympics were everywhere in the form of banners, volunteer stations and souvenir shops that seemed to spring up out of nowhere.

I figured if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em and I got onboard the Olympic bandwagon along with everyone else.

 

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I had full-fledged Olympic fever: I was watching the Games for at least six hours per day. If I wasn’t watching them at home, then I was watching them at the only restaurant in Wudaokou where you could sit outdoors—Big Eats—where I chose to instead sit indoors because that’s where the television was.

In addition to feats of athletic prowess, many newsworthy stories came out of the Games.

Shattering the good vibes of the Opening Ceremonies, three people were stabbed at the Drum Tower the following morning. The US women’s volleyball coach’s father-in-law died of his injuries—his wife and their Chinese tour guide were both critically-injured—and the assailant, a middle-aged industrial worker from Hangzhou, flung himself to his death from the Drum Tower.

I had to feel for the victims, who left America for arguably the safest big city in the world only to get shanked in broad daylight.

US swimmer Michael Phelps mopped the floor with his competition and won more medals than most countries—eight, all of which were gold. Combined with his six gold and two bronze at Athens in 2004, his performance in Beijing made him the most-decorated Olympian of all time.

The Chinese women’s gymnastics team took two gold and four bronze and came under fire for allegedly using underage competitors. I didn’t doubt it for a second: I watched some of the events and He Kexin, who walked away with the gold in the uneven bars event, couldn’t have been more than 14-years-old.

However, nothing came of the subsequent investigation: China had supplied all the necessary documents to support her age. The fact that they contradicted documents from previous international competitions was irrelevant.

Perhaps the biggest shock of the Games was when Liu Xiang, the defending Olympic champion and world record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, dropped out of the qualifying competition for the same event just before the starting time.

Tickets for track and field events were being scalped for as much as 10,000RMB specifically because he was competing. His forfeiture left a lot of people in possession of some very expensive tickets that they now considered worthless.

While the official reason given was a hamstring injury, Liu Xiang was not allowed to talk to the press. He later apologized to the nation for letting them down.

The Chinese basketball team, who were expected to at least get a medal based on the strength of having NBA superstar and national hero Yao Ming on the team, recorded a mere two victories and was annihilated 94-68 by Lithuania in the quarter-finals.
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I was finding the Olympics to be a good measure of international etiquette. The worst-behaved spectators by far were the Russians, with Americans coming in second and the entire continent of Africa coming in third.

The large Russian contingents were mostly made up of loud, boorish shirtless drunks who seemed to be itching to fight anyone who had a problem with having a fat gut with the Russian flag painted on it being shoved in their face.

Americans loudly booed any non-American competitors that their countrymen faced (and come to think of it, any final outcome that didn’t go their way), while large African contingents screamed profanity at officials and opposing competitors alike. At times, they seemed ready to jump out of their seats and join the action.

The most polite and sportsmanlike were easily the Japanese, who watched the proceedings as though they were at the ballet. They had nothing more than modest, reserved applause for both Japanese competitors and their opponents alike. The only sign that they were at all partisan was some equally-reserved flag waving and modest cheering.

And the Chinese, for the most part, were gracious and enthusiastic hosts. In many cases, it seemed as if they had no previous exposure to the sport that they were watching: they’d often turn to each other and ask what exactly was going on.

However, their lack of familiarity didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. Any time a Chinese competitor was in action, they’d enthusiastically shout “Jia you!” (It literally meant “add oil,” but could be translated as “let’s go!”)

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With nothing else to do, I decided to return to the Olympic Green and take pictures. It was a bright, clear blue sky day with temperatures hovering around 32°. I got the obligatory shot of the Bird’s Nest with the Olympic torch burning atop; I took pictures of the Water Cube and other necessities.

But I was really there to take pictures of people: the scene of scalpers openly selling tickets in front of the police was one of the most memorable images of the Olympics and I wanted to preserve that.

While strolling down the road on the west side of the Bird’s Nest—it had the highest concentration of scalpers in the area—I was confronted with a scene of mass pandemonium:

A guy had baited a scalper, ripped the tickets from his hands and bolted. But he didn’t make it very far: in a touching show of solidarity, the other scalpers stopped him in his tracks, quickly took him down and put the boots to him.

After the (illegal) tickets had been retrieved, he was turned over to the police, who’d watched the whole thing with expressions that seemed to indicate that they were annoyed by the prospect that they might actually have to do something.

There were a lot of babes wearing almost nothing. I snuck in many shameless ass-shots of Chinese girls wearing jaw-dropping mini-skirts and short shorts that left little to my considerable imagination.

And as I walked around taking pictures and listening to music, I realized something:

I was happy.

Not just a little happy, either: I was beaming big smiles in the direction of everyone I passed. Sometimes they smiled back, which gave me a warm feeling inside. This was very out of character for me, especially considering I’d been miserable for the past five months.

I didn’t know what was going on, but I liked it.

 

The “Tall Test”

 In this excerpt from Chapter 13, Chinese Rocks pays tribute to the millions of Chinese middle school students who roll the dice with their future this month by taking the dreaded “gao kao”, or university entrance examinations. Good luck, kids. May all your dreams come true.

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I taught very little in early-June because of the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gaokao: the three-day, nine-hour monster of an exam that determined the academic path and entire future of almost every middle and high school student in the country.

Top scores, which varied by year and by province, could land the recipient a slot in one of the country’s most prestigious universities. Middle-of-the-road scores landed one in a state school, while duds faced a variety of options, none of which were particularly pleasant:

Poor kids could attend military-style boarding schools that focused exclusively on the gaokao, which they were permitted to retake the following year. Rich kids had the option of enrolling in foundation programs affiliated with foreign universities where they could study for a chance to get into an overseas school.

While some foreign universities accepted Chinese students regardless of their test scores, they were also prohibitively-expensive.

There was good old-fashioned bribery, too—or one could even opt for suicide, a common post-exam result. 

With this extraordinary pressure came ingenious methods of cheating—like radio transmitters hidden in shoes, for example—that resulted in schools becoming bastions of security that resembled military research facilities.

Students weren’t the only ones who faced heavy scrutiny. With the stakes being as high as they were, many parents were all-too-willing to pay whatever it took in the form of bribes to teachers, a great number of which were not above accepting such gratuities.

One year, a student at San Zhong had been caught listening to her parents transmit answers from a cheat sheet that they’d allegedly purchased from a teacher.

Sometimes entire blocks were entirely sectioned off by the police. Lineups to get into schools stretched down the street (all students were subjected to rigorous full body searches) and anyone not taking the test or required to be on the premises for administrative purposes—like Conrad, Shaun and I—were strictly-forbidden from entering school grounds.

Nothing Happened Today

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 37.  The source of most of this information is The Tiananmen Papers by Zhang Liang,  Andrew J. Nathan, Perry Link and Orville Schell. Other sources include Red China Blues by Jan Wong and an interview with a student demonstrator who was attending Renmin University in 1989.

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Like most outside observers, I believed that a group of idealistic university heroes had staged something of a Haight-Ashburyesque love-in that called for an end to the horrifying tyranny of Communist rule and the ushering in of a Western-style democracy, an impression that was given an indelible stamp when that iconic image surfaced the day after the Square was cleared.

I believed that in accordance with their media-defined role as diabolical oppressors, the party-state immediately responded with brutal violence on par with that exhibited by the most sinister of Hollywood heavies, indiscriminately mowing down helpless, peace-loving neo-hippies for daring to challenge their unquestionable authority.

While the motivations of each side—the protestors and senior-level authorities—and the path that led to the grand finale are too complex to go into here, it’d be accurate to posit that what began as a student-led call for reasonable political reforms spiraled out of control as goals drifted, new actors were introduced to the equation and the leadership on both sides splintered as each pushed the other into untenable positions that hardened as the movement dragged on.

While the students’ initial demands were reasonable and found common ground with moderate viewpoints within the Party—they called for more accountability from officials, increased funding for education and a crackdown on nepotism and corruption, to name a few—they quickly became overreaching and impractical, like those that demanded that Zhongnanhai be turned into a park, that the State Treasury should abolish Party financing and that the authorities legitimize the vast student organizations outside of Party control that were formed at the genesis of the movement.

At the beginning, democracy was a mere abstract concept that floated through Deng Xiaoping’s open windows, a buzzword, a desire that wasn’t grounded in an understanding of the country’s current realities. When it became clear that the students’ time on the Square was fleeting, new plans began to crystallize and with the help of intellectuals and civil servants, the movement entered a new phase in which the increasingly-sophisticated autonomous organizations declared that they would use grassroots methods to mobilize the masses for a prolonged campaign for democratic reform.

Senior-level authorities, primarily Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader and lifelong patriot who’d been feverishly spearheading profound political and economic reform since he masterminded the dismantling of Mao’s toxic policies just a decade earlier, increasingly saw the often-violent protests as “turmoil” and drew parallels to the Cultural Revolution:

Both movements, he was quick to point out, were spearheaded by a group of radicals who engineered the shutdown of the higher education system and were characterized by widespread, often-violent public disturbances of repressed youth shouting inflammatory invective.

To Deng, who remained the final decision-maker despite having little formal authority, the students appeared to be disrespectful of the Party’s work to drag the country out of the stone age; that they were directly attacking his life’s work and that of his revolutionary colleagues; that they were impatient and that few of them understood the concept of political reform and that, furthermore, few of them really even knew what they wanted to begin with, which wasn’t inaccurate by any stretch:

The leadership of the movement was far from unified. By the time the protests reached their apex, four different organizations claimed to represent the student community alone and their flurry of handbills with conflicting goals flummoxed the authorities.

While meetings with high-ranking officials were arranged, the student leadership would often abruptly shift their demands and stiff their hosts, leaving them in the lurch. And when the meetings did place as scheduled, students would treat the government negotiators with contempt, offering steady streams of sarcastic commentary instead of hammering out a pragmatic path forward.

The term “student protests” is also somewhat misleading. While it’s true that the movement did originate at Wudaokou’s elite academic institutions—mainly Beijing University—the ranks of the protesters swelled to include just about every societal faction, including white collar workers, journalists, factory workers, provincial rubberneckers and shiftless ne’er-do-wells with only the vaguest idea of what was actually going on who scorned compromise lest they be denied their moment in the revolutionary spotlight.

I had a hard time believing that the students had initially mobilized without outside influence—or hadn’t been manipulated by a “tiny minority of black hands” to use the parlance of senior-level officials—simply because in my time working with Chinese university students, I found they rarely initiated anything on their own, much less decisive political action.

It was a theory shared by senior-level hardliners: leaders like Premier Li Peng, Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong and the crusty revolutionary-era Eight Elders who formed a quasi-official advisory council simply couldn’t believe that these kids had the know-how and intellect to galvanize the largest, most sustained democratic protests of the century, a movement that eventually enveloped every substantial city in the country—including Handan.

The fact that the students did initially act alone to spark their very own prairie fire says a lot about how much has changed since then—precisely because of the outcome that spring.

Contrary to the prevailing view held by the international community, the government never issued a decisive order to kill, but rather an order to “clear the Square” after seven weeks of sustained protest that paralyzed the city. It’s easy to ignore the fact that one of the reasons why the movement lasted as long as it did was precisely because the authorities were reluctant to use force in the first place:

While troops were ordered into the city two weeks prior to the bloodshed, they couldn’t get to their destinations because of the fortified blockades—including electric buses and human chains—that the seething public had constructed: the troops simply sat on the outskirts and awaited further instruction.

As information continued to pour in from the country’s intelligence services, the leadership realized the students didn’t plan to vacate the Square voluntarily and envisioned the prolonged movement leading to civil war and societal collapse—a scenario that wasn’t entirely unfathomable considering the country’s long track record of destructive populist movements.

I thought that the Party didn’t get enough credit for the level of tolerance and restraint that they showed, particularly in the face of the shortsighted demands, outbreaks of violence and sharp personal attacks from increasingly-outrageous protesters who refused to compromise and threatened via their public statements to eventually overthrow the government with the formation of militarized organizations seeking to mobilize the country’s vast masses.

How long did it take for the Ohio National Guard to open fire on a crowd of unarmed Kent State protestors in 1970, a group that was far more benign than its Chinese counterparts?

Four days.

And immediately following the Kent State incident, it only took local law enforcement officers at Jackson State College, a small black school in Mississippi, a mere three hours to spray a dormitory full of bullets to subdue students protesting the United States’ invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. A similar incident in Orangeburg, South Carolina resulted in three dead and 28 injured after the cops fired into crowd of black teenagers protesting racial discrimination, an issue that, while important, wasn’t nearly as urgent as 100,000,000 million angry civilians calling for a complete overhaul of the government and Deng’s head on a pike.

In Beijing, it took seven weeks of mounting pressure before poorly-trained troops from the countryside disregarded the repeated commands from the top to restore order peacefully and resorted to isolated acts of violence.

The blame should also be shared by the protesters, many of whom didn’t live up to their media-constructed roles as saints. Some disregarded the order at the eleventh hour that warned citizens that the Square was slated to be cleared: BUMP students, for example, armed themselves and hightailed it downtown with full expectations of engaging in an apocalyptic battle.

Homemade weapons—chains, clubs, cleavers, bamboo spears, paving stones, Molotov cocktails—were freely distributed and others later seized artillery from the military convoys that had begun to slowly roll towards the heart of the city.

Mob-originated violence against soldiers four miles west of the Square escalated to a full-scale riot and the soldiers’ non-lethal weapons—primarily tear gas and clubs—failed to dissipate the bloodthirsty and vengeful mobs.

They opened fire. Later, after the Square was peacefully cleared, students clashed with troops and the situation deteriorated. Both sides incurred casualties. Some protestors even eviscerated soldiers and defiled their corpses after order broke down.

After the longest-lasting pro-democracy movement of the twentieth century was quashed, a weary Deng Xiaoping threw up his hands: “This storm was bound to come along sooner or later,” he said to a group of assembled officials at a private meeting. “The combination of the international climate and China’s own climate made this inevitable. There was no way human will could have avoided it…”

Twenty years later, the legacy of what the authorities now officially refer to as the “1989 Storm” is palpable in the resigned public acceptance that the Party will utilize inflexible heavy-handedness when it comes to any perceived challenge of their mandate to rule the country. But while the closing ceremonies of the 1989 Spring Student Activist Games should have put the boots to the misconception that economic liberalization leads to political reform, the myth continues to persist amongst Western observers.

The West assumes that unless a nation’s political system has multiple political parties that compete in free elections, then that nation is an oppressive dictatorship—it’s misguided binary thinking: While China’s political system isn’t “free” in the traditional sense, the publicly-disseminated goals and viewpoints of the country’s top leaders, unlike most dictatorships, appear to be aligned with the needs of the majority of the population—they just suffer from an image problem:

They make myriad tone deaf missteps; they’re heavy-handed, secretive, bellicose and fail to control local officials who receive outsized negative foreign media scrutiny for their misdeeds, in part, because the country is massive and culturally heterogeneous—each province is the size of a European nation and helmed by distant leaders struggling to combat unique problems.

When issuing directives downwards, the central authorities suffer from their policy of refusing to provide funding for their proper implementation, which in turn results in ad hoc, often brutal solutions by these local leaders hoping to move up the political food chain.

Aside from the bloody blip in 1989, the past 30 years of stability have been the most sustained peacetime for the country in living memory—precisely, the Party claims, because of their firm hand on the tiller. When it comes all-out Western-style, red-white-and-blue democracy, however, the central authorities are quick to point out that the country’s reform process was kicked off by reform within the Party—not the other way around: a grassroots economic juggernaut did not nudge the leadership to modernize and adapt to the current climes.

Democratic elections at this point, the leadership argues, would lead to a new era of chaos and instability. The public, the Party claims, needs their unwavering leadership and stability to foster in this new era of economic prosperity and to solve the myriad problems that the country faces while continuing to develop personal rights, the rule of law and social programs.

Teachers Do it With Class

Much of the content of “Chinese Rocks” revolves around the ESL business. The stories range from private schools to public high schools to elite universities. If you are thinking of coming to China to teach English, it is my genuine hope that these stories give you some idea of what you’re getting involved in.

Peter Baird

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“Classes were grouped by overall standardized test scores, which in some respects, made sense because all of them were at the same general level.

However, it made some classes a nightmare for the teacher. While the students in the top tenth-percentile were a dream to work with—they were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, smart and eager to learn—those on the opposite end of the spectrum were little better than juvenile delinquents: lazy, undisciplined and in some cases, just plain dumb, opting to sleep through class, or even worse, talk throughout the entire lesson.

Eventually, I found the only way to manage these groups was to occasionally kick one of them out of the classroom. Since Chinese students hated to be singled out, this usually succeeded in restoring order (although it didn’t do much to motivate them: these were the peanut farmers and migrant workers of tomorrow).

Their regular English classes were taught by a Chinese teacher—often one with very little in the way of practical English skills—and focused mostly on reading, writing and grammar. As such, most of them had never really used what they were learning in the way that mattered most: verbal communication.

My new mandate was to review with added emphasis on speaking and listening: I used holidays for the debut topic. Their books listed everything from Ramadan to Kwanza and I determined that it would be a good opportunity to practice using one of the basic functions of the English language, asking questions based on the Five Ws (and one H): who, what, where, when, why and how.

It may sound terribly-simplistic, but for most of them, it was very challenging: some of them had never actually spoken English before.

It’d usually wind up taking the entire 40 minutes to go through seven holidays and the delinquents were lucky if they managed to nail four of them.

The one with which they had the most trouble, surprisingly enough, was Spring Festival, the country’s premier festival that marked the beginning of a new year on the lunisolar calendar.

Even though I explained the different types of calendars to them (Roman, Gregorian, Lunar, Islamic), most still claimed that it took place on Jan 1. (While the exact date revolved depending on the year, Spring Festival always fell between Jan 21 and Feb 20.)

Nevertheless, I considered the lesson plan a great success and in the following weeks, I continued to use the formula of using content from their textbooks to practice the basic functions of the English language.

It was tough. While I didn’t want it to be too easy for the brighter students, it couldn’t be too difficult because the others would be lost.

One unit was about movies and I designed a lesson about describing events. After I taught them the names for different film genres, the students had to answer three basic questions:

“What kind of movies do you like? What’s your favourite movie? What’s it about?”

It was difficult for most to answer the last question with more than a simple sentence or two—but still, it was progress.

When one student told me that his favourite movie was Hero, I asked him what it was about:

“A hero,” he said.

That was good enough for me. Honestly, getting them to say anything at all often resulted in nothing more than them standing there nervously while looking at their shoes with the hopes I’d eventually give up and move on, which I often did.

Sometimes the topics in the books were too broad or just plain uninteresting—“Great Women,” for example—and I’d take some creative license.

After several days of being stumped for ideas, I decided to simply teach a lesson about Anne Frank. I introduced them to her diary, assigned several excerpts to read and then asked questions about what they thought the passage was about and what Anne was thinking and feeling.

These types of lessons usually turned out to be more successful than the ones based directly on the book.

Another topic that I found incredibly-dull was science and technology. I came up with the idea of having them think of some kind of invention to pitch to me as if I was an investor.

Here, I encountered a problem that I’d frequently come across in my teaching career: many students had a complete and total lack of imagination:

Every class had flying cars, teleportation devices, time machines and pills that kept you from aging. One student came up with an mp5, which was no different from an mp4 except that you could watch television and play games on it.

The worst was a kid who said, “It’s a game.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s it called?”

“CS,” he said.

I groaned: “CS” was the short form for Counter Strike, a first-person shooter game that was very popular at the time.

“There’s already a game called CS,” I said.

“It’s like CS,” he responded.

Keeping the lessons humorous did a lot to encourage participation. I designed one around the topic of friendship and found that having the students express their likes and dislikes was a good example.

I told each of them to write down three of each on a piece of paper. After Ashley collected them, I had her secretly separate them into two piles—one for girls and the other for boys—before I selected them at random and copied them to the board: the boys on one side, the girls on the other.

The students (who were unaware of how I’d divided the two groups) would then draw comparisons between those in Group A and Group B based on their likes and dislikes and match them as “best friends.”

However, because Chinese boys and girls at that age tended to treat each other as if they had cooties, this was usually terribly-embarrassing for the two new best friends—and hysterical for their classmates.

For the most part, I liked my job: it was challenging, stimulating and gave me an opportunity to exercise my creativity. More importantly, as I watched their progress, I realized that I was actually doing a job that made a difference in their lives.

This was far more rewarding than making sure that the soup section in aisle 14 was full.”-Chapter 8

“Not long afterwards, I went to another county, Chang’an, for a dance at which I was to give the kids at a primary school a chance to practice what they had learned in their English classes by teaching a couple of lessons based on their textbook, which I had quickly scanned before preparing several questions alongside a short lecture and some games.

As Daisy and I were driven there by their vice-principal, I knew this was going to be torture when he started asking me the usual gems:

“How long have you been in China?”

“A little over a year.”

“Oh! You are very great!”

I just loved how many people in China told me that I was “very good” or “great” after a less than minute.

“What impresses you most about Handan?”

“The filth,” I said. “We simply don’t have dirt like this in Canada.”

Daisy had a good giggle over that one. We arrived at the school an hour later and were shown through a large Imperial-style gate to a dirt courtyard that was surrounded by two long single-level concrete buildings.

Along with a playground and a small administrative office, this was the extent of the school.

The principal fawned over me in a way that was just downright unbecoming of a man in his position. He asked if I wanted something to eat and I said, “Yeah, a sandwich,” which caused Daisy to punch me in the shoulder.

He brought over a fruit bowl and I settled for a banana and some grapes while he sat down with me to discuss the content of the lesson. Essentially, he just wanted me to do a simple Q&A with the kids.

All the time that I’d spent preparing the lesson had been a complete waste.

I was kept waiting for 40 minutes before being led into the courtyard where I was greeted with a round of applause from about a hundred little tykes sitting cross-legged on the ground.

Despite the warm reception, from the looks on some of their faces, it seemed like many of them were terrified of me—some were actually trembling. Given that all of them appeared to be less than 10-years-old, I was pretty sure that I was the first white person that they’d ever seen in the flesh.

After my introduction, I picked one tiny little boy sitting in the front: “What’s your name?” I asked.

He shrunk back from me with a puzzled expression, looked to his teacher and gazed back at me before turning his eyes to the ground.

I looked at Daisy imploringly.

“What’s your name?” Daisy asked in Chinese.

“Jack,” said Jack in a barely-audible whisper.

I moved on to the next one, a cute, pudgy-faced girl with pigtails: “How old are you?”

She grinned at me nervously but didn’t say anything.

“How old are you?” Daisy asked in Chinese.

“Ba sui.”

“She’s eight,” said Daisy.

I groaned and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, I got that, Daisy.”

God, this was pathetic.

For the next part of the session, Daisy translated questions from Chinese to English and then back again.

A few kids actually could ask questions in English: “Have you ever been to Handan?” asked one.

When I told them that I lived in Handan, an excited murmur spread through the crowd. Yes, the foreigner lived in the “big city,” which was apparently a magical place that they all hoped to visit one day.”-Chapter 14

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“All in all, it went quite well: I introduced myself briefly and gave a (very) improvised lecture on punctuation and the principles of letter writing and assigned them the task of writing an introduction letter as homework.

While most of the students were quite cute in a puppy dog-type way—they seemed very sweet and naïve, with many of the girls dressing and accessorizing like pre-teens—most of them were studying for careers in military research.

When one girl stated that she wanted to work on China’s air defense system post-graduation, I imagined anti-aircraft missiles with Hello Kitty painted on the side.”-Chapter 22

“I was teaching at one of the most elite institutions in the entire country and had no doubt that the students—or rather, their parents—were paying top-dollar for what they expected to be a quality education. And while I did my best to live up to those expectations, I couldn’t help but think that in some respect, I was the one getting an education:

Higher education in China, I learned, wasn’t like in Canada where a university education made little difference in your overall ability to get a good job: a degree, I felt, could actually be a hindrance if you didn’t land a gig that could allow you to pay off those cumbersome student loans.

Many Canadian employers actually looked down on educated people. After all, who wanted to hire someone who was more educated than they were?

Collegiate life in America and other Western countries had also been satirized in movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. According to Shaun, the saying in Australia was that “Ps (passes) get degrees,” which meant that success was just a matter of showing up and doing the bare minimum.

In China, university was so much more than that: it was the Super Bowl of Chinese education; from the day that they’d taken the kindergarten entrance examinations to the gaokao, everything had been leading to this. The entire education system was viewed as a game (as opposed to an actual learning process) where the student’s future was the prize.

And in the game of Chinese education, elite institutions like BUMP were at the highest level of competition. “-Chapter 22

“Oral English class was pretty much their only chance to express themselves in front of their peers—in English or otherwise—and if you could get them going on a subject that they were passionate about, it was often impossible to shut them up.

While they did get ridiculed by their classmates, it added levity to the classroom. Actually, nobody ridiculed them more than I did, but it was all in good fun.

Once, when a student was talking about Miami, he said, “It’s a bitch city.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a city full of bitches.”

I thought about the city in southeastern Florida and considered that he had a point before I realized that he meant beaches. I pointed out his error and explained the meaning of “bitch.”-Chapter 36

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“During my search for movies that could generate discussion, I came across Thank You for Smoking, the critically-acclaimed 2005 film about a tobacco lobbyist. A film about lobbying, I thought, would not only provide some interesting cross-cultural discussion, but had the potential to impart some valuable debating skills that perhaps I could not.

I allotted two weeks for the movie and another week for a debate on imposing a public smoking ban in Beijing.

Not only was it the most well-received movie that I’d ever shown, but was the only time that I could recall students actually clapping at the end. That is not to say that it went perfectly—there were some awkward moments, including a brief sex scene that clearly made some uncomfortable—but all in all, it was golden.

For me, the most awkward moment was when Robert Duvall asked Aaron Eckhardt, “Son, where were you in 1952?”

“Sir, I wasn’t even born in 1952,” he said.

“Hell, I was in North Korea shooting Chinese,” Duvall replied. “Nowadays they’re our best customers. I guess next time we won’t have to shoot so many of them, will we?”

I cringed. A few students laughed, but many more—some of whom no doubt had grandparents who’d served in the Korean War—had looks on their faces that said, “That isn’t even remotely funny.”-Chapter 36

“Six of the 20 students (mid-forties, PhDs in meteorology) would be selected to go to Canada for training: who got to go was largely up to me.

Not only did it pay well (4500RMB for three days per week), but the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) was right in my backyard.

Although their English level wasn’t very high, we did manage to have some sport. I showed them a Lonely Planet video on northern Canada that depicted Eskimos living in igloos and eating seal blubber.

While they found it horrifying, there was a good chance that they’d be sent to the far north where the majority of Canada’s weather stations were located.

What I really liked about this post was that I could do pretty much anything I wanted without worrying about my job security—like the lesson on overcoming adversity.

I showed them a clip from The Onion Movie, a collection of satirical sketch comedy vignettes that included a mock human interest piece about a hockey player with no arms and legs.

As the film showed clips of the wheelchair-bound Bobby Leroux struggling across the ice with a stick tucked under his stump as he was repeatedly sent flying with vicious body checks, some of the students were nearly reduced to tears of compassion.

“He’s so brave!” one woman exclaimed.

When I told them that it was a joke, their expressions changed to ones of extreme confusion. “-Chapter 41