Cultural appropriation or cultural representation?

Part 3 of a 3-part post about cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.


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Appropriation or representation?

Following on from last week, I’m going to jump straight in with a snippet from this article from the Guardian, which first quotes author Courttia Newland, then author Ahdaf Soueif:

“The issue isn’t whether or not [white writers] are given the right to create characters of colour. Rather, it is whether they do it well and the privilege that comes with being enabled to tell stories that writers of colour are routinely marginalised for.”

Newland said white writers must recognise the privileged position from which they write, and understand the basis of accusations of cultural appropriation. “Cultural appropriation is about power, or the lack of acknowledgment thereof, and respect,” he added. “There’s a reason Eminem largely escapes that type of criticism and Miley Cyrus doesn’t. It’s mainly to do with their actions.”

Booker-shortlisted author Ahdaf Soueif said: “In the end, what it comes down to is: are you going to write well or not? I think a novelist should be able to write about anything or anybody they like.”

“People and countries like Egypt and Palestine are used by writers as if they were simply stage sets, backdrops on which they can write their fantasies,” Soueif continued. “It is problematic, but it is not a problem to be solved by some kind of edict that says you can only write white male characters if you are a white male. The problem is far more subtle than that.”

A subtle problem indeed. If we approach the issue with a hammer and say “it’s wrong to write outside of your own ethnicity and experience” then we may as well stop writing. As with Tibetan monks (see my last post), chunks of humanity will fail to be represented simply because there are far fewer talented writers willing to represent their groups. I’m not suggesting that they need a privilaged white saviour to step in for them. I’m suggesting that a hammer approach will harm diversity, not help it.

A hard approach in the writer’s favour would be like that of Lionel Shriver (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”, 2003, Serpent’s Tail). Shriver caused her own furore last year when she essentially said that writers should be able to write about anything they want to. “That’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes,” she said.

Sudanese-born Australian social activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied immediately wrote a rawly honest rebuttal, in which she said that Shriver’s speech was “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.

Although Abdel-Magied made the fine point that those with actual experience should be given the opportunities to tell their own stories, she fails to offer any solutions, or explain why exactly the writer stepping in is so terrible. I wrote earlier in this series of posts about the bias that comes from filtering another’s experience through our own. Again, we have lost focus of the argument: Is it bad that marginalised groups don’t have the same opportunities? Undoubtedly. But that is not the question. The question is: Is it wrong for me to at least try?

There seems to be the assumption that writers don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, many don’t. But how about if I spent a week interviewing a gay Aboriginee about his or her experiences and wrote a story about those? Is that still wrong? I’m still picking which bits that I want to write about, and it will be naturally be as a narrative rather than verbatim, i.e., my own words. This is an extreme example, but this is not that far from penning a fully-researched novel. It’s worth remembering, when discussing this, that writers look shit up. Some spend years reading every book to hand – including first-hand accounts and verbal histories – conducting interviews, watching documentaries, travelling to the countries/people in question, and generally working their damndest to achieve authenticity. This will not eliminate bias, but writers who care about a gay Aborinee’s story enough to dedicate a year or two to writing about it are probably already aware of their biases, prejudices, and the ever-present threat of accusation.

“But the writer is taking their identity,” Abdel-Magied and others might say. I’m reminded of a story told to me by an old girlfriend. She had a falling out with the girlfriend of her brother. Apparently they dressed alike, and one dramatically complained that the other was “stealing her identity”. Racial identity is a serious matter, but the idea of its theft is weak. Like the girls, one is not diminished by another’s admiration or duplication. A person’s race is not a Ming vase that is more valuable if there are no others. However, that is a long-running argument in the arts in its own right.

Abdel-Magied makes a startling leap in logic: “The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…” Perhaps this follows in the heat of the moment, but I don’t believe that even belittling or attacking another person directly qualifies as considering them “less than human”. And a writer is not (usually) belittling their subject: they are, according to the traditions of drama and, yes, entertainment, sympathising with them. How else could the reader care about our protagonists? Novelists are not usually writers of disguised hate speech. It’s surely established that most creative types are funamentally liberal.

Omar Musa, the Malaysian-Australian poet, rapper and novelist, told the Guardian that he finds the issue difficult; the suggestion that writers shouldn’t move outside the boundaries of their own experiences comes into direct conflict with what he sees as the purpose of fiction: to empathise with and understand other people’s lives.

This is the point that I find myself going out on: that writers are not, generally speaking, horrible people. There is, of course, a great risk that even the best-natured writers will unwittingly draw upon stereotypes or be reductive, but I believe that this is something to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only in this way can we assess and learn from what is genuinely offensive or unfaithful and truly engender diversity. The bottom line: authentic cultural representation.

— db


Further reading:

This personal article from the Huffington Post also poigniantly disscussed the complex issue of cultural appropriation, partly in favour of Shriver’s strongly-worded speech.

Of interest to writers may be this collection of thoughts from published authors.

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A writer’s experience with the dangers of cultural appropriation

Part 2 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.
Read Part 1 here.


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A writer’s experience

When I first began searching for representation for my novel “Cycles of Udapir” in 2015, I was told by one literary agent that “it is hard to sell a novel centering on Indian street boys and girls written by a Brit.” In the same sentence, he praised the film “Slumdog Millionaire”, written by Yorkshire-born Simon Beaufoy and directed by the English Danny Boyle.

What is a writer to do? In my last post I bemoaned the horrible device of writing a novel set in another country but with a white protagonist, which apparently skirts the issue of cultural appropriation but could land you in “white saviour” territory.

I have to ask, who are writers trying to kid with this? The white protagonist (by which I really mean “protagonist who matches the writer’s ethnicity etc.”, in my case white British) is meant to be a buffer, providing a legitimate filter through which the “other” is perceived – in the case of “Cycles”, my Indian characters. It would be offensive, we’re told, for me to write from the point of view of an Indian, so I must show my Indian characters through the lens of my privilaged white perspective: a white British protagonist.

It’s not good enough that I just want to write a story about Indians, which is my prerogative and which might be something that people want to read regardless of my ethnic background, as though that matters.

My latest novel, which is turning into something of an epic, deals with Tibetan Buddhism and the situation of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile following the occupation of Tibet by China. My young protagonist is Tibetan (plus a little Chinese) because the book is about Tibetans. Not only is it more interesting for me to try to get inside the head of someone with a different background and mindset to me, it is surely more interesting for the reader, too. Don’t we already have enough fiction with Western protagonists? Aren’t we supposed to be striving for more diversity in fiction?

Novelist Zoë Marriott said that writing rich, diverse characters was not the same as appropriating someone else’s culture. “People from marginalised groups are always being promised diversity and being delivered patronising, whitewashed and outright offensive portrayals instead,” she said.

This comes closer to my perspective, which is, crudely, “It’s fine if it’s done right.” But even this view is debated.


A writer’s dilemma

What is my specific problem? My book is about Tibetan monks and, unsurprisingly, not many Tibetan monks are novelists. Even if they were, they perhaps wouldn’t want to tell the story that I want to tell, which I believe could be meaningful and culturally significant. But of course, then I’m stepping in and being a “white saviour” myself, defending downtrodden minorities from my privilaged position. You only have to see how people react to famous actors providing relief abroad to know how that goes down.

I could write the book as I want to write it, be forced to self-publish, and have fairly reasonable accusations of cultural appropriation and possible racism levelled against me (assuming it ever gets finished and anyone ever hears about it).

Alternatively I could rewrite the entire novel from the perspective of a Heinrich Harrer-type character. Frankly this is boring, and will only serve to dilute the story. The book is about Tibetans, not what a white boy thinks about Tibetans. The reader already knows and accepts that these are a white person’s perceptions of another cultural group. Why must the writer go through the sham of creating a character to tell the reader what they already know? Frankly, it’s patronising and a waste of time.


Finding the root of the problem

In my my last post I wrote about the response to J. K. Rowling’s use of Native American folklore. The Rowling situation illustrated a point that has dogged the cultural appropriation debate for a long time: peope can’t remain focused. The issue at hand is not whether the words are offensive, or mis-representative, or reductive, but whether there is such as thing as appropriating another person’s culture in the context of fiction, and whether that is a bad thing. If “appropriation” means “using”, i.e. I wrote a book set in another country, then this debate shouldn’t even have started. Of course I’m permitted to set a story in another country. Of course I’m permitted to imagine what the life is like of somebody who isn’t me. Believe it or not, I’m capable of empathy and have rather a good imagination, and I’m capable of undertaking research.

If we can’t establish the foundation of the debate, then every other question is meaningless. If we can start at the bottom and build up, then we can begin to have constructive conversations on what is permissable and what isn’t. In reality, no-one will be able to agree on what is permissable, on both sides of the argument. Every person is unique even amongst their own people, and that is why art is possible and absolutely necessary in all its forms.

One viewpoint is that the diversity is supposed to come from those groups other than the dominant one. Anything else is arguably patronising. Regrettably for all the dominant group is (almost?) always Western white folk. It is no lie that the entertainment industry (to name just one) is geared towards whiteness and makes it extremely difficult for other voices to be heard. According to the argument, it’s not enough that there are very few novels about Tibet and that I’m in a position to try to write one (i.e. have the time and information and skill (?) available to me). It should be Tibetans writing about Tibet and it’s the industry (a reflection of societal bias) that’s stopping this from happening. By writing about Tibetans I am appropriating their culture (and probably getting it wrong in the process), whilst at the same time making a profit (ha ha!) from an industry that is, perhaps indirectly, blocking genuinly diverse voices.

This is one view, but it’s not one I wholly agree with. Isn’t it possible to represent another’s culture without appropriating it? That is the question for Part Three

I’d love to hear any and all thoughts on this topic! Feel free to comment away.

— db

The Anthony Horowitz row – Why cultural appropriation isn’t straightforward

Horowitz

Anthony Horowitz. Photograph: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Part 1 of a 3-part post on cultural appropriation in literature.


What’s it all about?

If you haven’t heard, Anthony Horowitz, writer of the Alex Rider series and the latest James Bond novel, recently claimed that he was ‘warned off’ creating a black protagonist  because he is a white writer. Allegedly, an editor said that it would be inappropriate, ‘artificial and possibly patronising’, to do so.

This has reignited the old debate about cultural appropriation in literature, with several writers putting forward their points of view.

Ben Aaronovich, writer of the ‘Rivers of London’ series, tweeted of Horowitz: “If you don’t feel confident or just don’t want to write black characters, just say so. Don’t pretend it’s political correctness gone mad.”

What is Aaronovich actually claiming – that Horowitz made it up? I don’t believe that to be true, especially since no-one’s previously come out to say, “Oi, Horowitz, where are all your black characters?” Hororwitz wasn’t responding to an allegation. Therefore Aaronovich can go away if he’s not going to add anything constructive to the argument.

More helpful is the view of Patrice Lawrence, author of the best-selling ‘Orangeboy’ (2016, Hachette), who said that “[t]he whole issue of equality and diversity has been hijacked by white writers.” It seems that we have appropriated appropriation. The  Guardian article goes on to say to how some people claim that working class white people don’t have equality either, so perhaps this is what Lawrence means. Anyone who thinks that manual labourers in Sheffield’s Manor Top have it as bad as, say, African slaves worked to death in the bellies of British galleons, could do with a wake-up call.


Coldplay

From Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend” music video, set in India. Photograph: PR company handout

Can “appropriation” be done right?

An aggressive article by the Guardian’s Rashmee Kumar last year referred to the “colonial representation” of India by “ignorant white people everywhere”, in response to a Coldplay music video:

Director Ben Mor sprayed the “essence of incredible India” onto his video, a diluted perfume invented by white, western creatives whenever they want some Indian inspiration. Under the western gaze, India is a lush, exotic land filled with dingy slums inhabited by pious, levitating holy men and lanky brown-skinned children who are always throwing colored powders at each other. This idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony.

Forget the nonsensical implication that a 3-minute music video could ever capture the entirety of a country’s complex culture; Kumar seems to believe that all Western interpretations of India are as “myopic” as Mor’s video and that no-one but an Indian could possibly get it right. The article suggests that it’s wrong to portray only the exotic and positive elements of a culture (but strangely tosses slums into this category), calling it “reductive”.

In all art forms an interpretation is reductive, simply because it’s not possible to describe the whole of a culture’s history in one painting of a ship, or relevant to write out the whole of a culture’s economical situation in a film that is meant to be a romantic comedy. As always, an artist will take the elements that are relevant to the story being told. Later, Kumar suggests that the mere act of “invoking” India is something offensive. The message: stay away unless you’re Indian, or at least know what you’re talking about. The latter I agree with whole-heartedly; the former is offensive and divisive.

There are many excellent points in Kumar’s article, especially about representation, and it’s well worth reading in full.

The “fine if it’s done right” perspective doesn’t always apply. J. K. Rowling took heat for writing a fictional account of wizards in historical America, which linked her stories to true beliefs held by some Native Americans. The result was an accusation of cultural appropriation:

“You can’t just claim and take a living tradition of a marginalised people,” said campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene on Twitter. “That’s straight up colonialism/appropriation.”

Was Rowling “claiming” Native American spiritual beliefs? I don’t believe so, any more than I’m “claiming” the beliefs of Catholics when I write about 16th Century Britain, the people of which are just as much “other” to me as a Native American. Referring to something is not the same as claiming it, and forbidding a writer to write about something other than which they are personally ethnically connected is firmly against what art is about: creating in order to bring people together. Saying “keep away from our stuff” does not help anyone to build a true understanding of another’s culture.

Some complaints were along the lines of “my beliefs are not fantasy”, despite the consensus of almost the entire planet believing that they are (every believer in any god but yours thinks you’re wrong). This complaint is not the same as “you didn’t write about it respectfully”, which should be the point. Others quite rightly took umbrage at Rowling referring to a “Native American community”, when actually “Native peoples and communities and cultures are diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another”.

Rowling was quiet after the accusations, despite receiving thousands of comments. I don’t blame her: even talking about the issue is an invitation to be pulled apart (I expect I shall be saved by lack of readership). In the second part of this series of posts I will talk about some of my own experiences and take a look at what could be the root of the problem. In the meantime, I sincerely invite comments and discussion.

— db

 

Why I’m boycotting Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’

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The Internet has been over this before. In April, Marvel released the trailer for its next blockbuster superhero film, ‘Doctor Strange’, a story about an arrogant surgeon who, after his hands being irreperably damaged in an accident, learns the error of his ways and becomes a powerful scorcerer. Stephen Strange finds his spiritual awakening in Tibet, with the help of a Tibetal mystic known as the Ancient One, and thereafter protects the world from all forms of mystic badness as the Sorcerer Supreme.

Marvel’s first trailer brought accusations of white-washing after it appeared to show that the huge studio, now owned by Disney, has scrubbed all mention of Tibet from the story. In the film, Tibet has become Nepal and the Ancient One is now a white person. The reason seems obvious: to appease the government of the People’s Republic of China, a country that represents a huge cinemagoing audience and has the world’s most notorious wall of censorship, forbidding any mention of politically-sensitive situations like Tibet.

I won’t re-tread old ground too much, but link to some articles here:

(Lionsroar.com) The Strange Case of Doctor Strange’s Tibet

(The Guardian) Tilda Swinton cast as Tibetan to placate China, says Doctor Strange writer

‘Doctor Strange’ Writer Says China-Tibet Remarks Don’t Represent Marvel

(Screenrant.com) Doctor Strange’s Erasure Of Tibet Is A Political Statement

(The Guardian) George Takei on Doctor Strange controversy: ‘Marvel must think we’re all idiots’

If you didn’t know, Tibet is technically part of China – ever since China invaded and stomped all over Tibet in the 1950s, and has been crushing it underfoot ever since. Before I get accused of exaggeration, let the world be reminded of an independant ICJ  Human Rights Report into the brutalities of the 1950-51 invasion of Tibet, which led to the exile of the Tibetan government, its spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and over 100,000 desperate citizens. The illegal and well-guarded path over the freezing Himalayas has killed many fleeing Tibetans. They were and purportedly are still escaping beatings, brainwashing (thabzing), wrongful arrests and killings, torture,  mutilation, dismemberment, disembowelling, vivisection and crucifixion (yes, you read that correctly). Following the 1959 uprising, those shouting “Long live the Dalai Lama” were reported to have their tongues torn out with meathooks.

Children have been spirited away from villages to be indoctrinated at Chinese schools. Han Chinese have been urged/bribed to move into the “Tibet Autonomous Region”, displacing the native Tibetans an attempt at cultural erasure. Thousands of Buddhist monasteries were looted and destroyed (purportedly 8 of 6,000 remaining, as Potemkin tourist attractions), and celibate Buddhist monks were forced to have sex and marry one another. Nomads with generations of nomadic existence in their blood were told to stay put. Communism brought famine to the near-barren lanscape of the Tibetan plateau.

In Tibet, people are punished just for keeping in touch with their exiled relatives, even though this is now official legal. Self immolators who protest the enslavement of Tibet are thrown, still burning, into trucks and disappear, and may take a day to die. During the 2008 Tibetan uprising, which failed, bodies of protestors were piled high in the courtyards of monasteries. 1.5 million Tibetans have died in defence of their human rights. I’d heard stories, but the facts I found this year when researching my latest novel about Buddhism and Tibet made me sick to my stomach.

But Marvel wants to make money off its latest film, so it continues to pander to the Chinese film requirements. Censors in China only approve 34 foreign films per year, and some censorship requires that a film contains a scene set in China, has the casting of Chinese actors, has Chinese investors, or shows “positive Chinese messages”. Marvel already got into bed with Chinese film studios for ‘Iron Man 3’ to avoid those requirements (and, incidentally, adding additional scenes in which genius Chinese surgeons fix a superhero’s heart problems, adding Chinese product placement, and changing the Chinese villain The Mandarin to a British actor ‘playing’ a villain with a false American accent). You might have noticed a rash of films the last few years with scenes set in China or in which China saves the day, such as Looper (2012), Red Dawn (2012), Gravity (2013), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), and The Martian (2015). Why? Because this doubles box office profits from China, as well as allows the film to be shown in the first place. Forget politics, there’s dough to be made.

Weirdly, in the latest comic book issue of Doctor Strange, Marvel has confirmed the Tibetan origin:

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Doctor Strange #011 (Sept 2016)

What’s going on there? Appeasement to fans? A small sacrifice, considering the films are making far, far more money than any comic book run ever could. Not good enough, Marvel.

I don’t know about you guys, but kowtowing to a tyrannical government for profit in light of genocide and cultural suppression sounds pretty uncool to me. If you’ve read my previous travel posts you’ll know that I have a lot of love for historical and present day China, but I despise its government. I have a great love of Marvel, whose comics and characters have brought me some of my greatest joys in life, but I can’t in good conscience see a film I’ve always hoped to be made, with actors I adore. I was hoping that the newly-released second trailer might correct some assumptions – but sadly not. And already people seem to have forgotten about the controversy and are all set to pre-order their tickets. I don’t blame them – but I would blame myself.

—db

Celebrating Chinese New Year 2015

I have a bit of an uneven personal history with China.

I grew up with a love for Asian culture, which matured into solid appreciation for Chinese and Hong Kong cinema in particular, as well as literary fiction from the likes of Ha Jin (“Waiting”) and Jung Chang (“Wild Swans”).

In 2012 is visited China and Hong Kong as part of a tour of South East Asia, and spent several weeks traveling East from Chengdu to Shanghai, seeing such popular highlights as the Terracotta Army and the Great Wall.  It was amazing, and cemented my love for certain aspects of Chinese culture, history and art.

The attraction was so strong that I moved to China last year to work as a TEFL teacher in the ancient city of Xi’an.  As readers of this blog will know, that didn’t pan out.  Recent sudden success with my editing and ghostwriting business, but mainly aspects of my British personal life that I can’t bear to be without, has put the TEFL life on the back-burner for the time being.  I’m sure that I will visit China again in the future, however.

It’s with great joy that I wish all my past and present friends in China a grand Happy New Year, with much prosperity and joy in the year to come!

To celebrate, I’m releasing a special collection of China-related short stories for ebook readers, which will be available within the next few hours from Amazon (here) and Smashwords (here).


Love is an Eye coverIn celebration of Chinese New Year 2015, these short stories by David Brookes are released as a collection for the first time. Set in China, three fables of a romantic and philosophical nature show us the inner worlds of three troubled individuals struggling with love, loss and memory.

Also includes a narrative article, “Chasing the Dragon”, in celebration of Chinese New Year.


Please take the chance with 99p (or 99c) for this special little collection and let me know what you think.

Thanks again for your continued love and support!

—db

Departure

It wasn’t an easy decision to abandon the job in Xi’an and return to the UK.  I had already invested a lot in the venture and knew that I wouldn’t likely return any time soon.  It seemed that a mixture of issues left me little choice, but in the end I was not disappointed to leave, but drawn home and grateful for the excuse.

There were significant issues with the job posting (see last post) as well as peripheral hardships that were expected, but difficult to deal with nonetheless.  I considered staying on in China to find another post, though it had taken me months of hard work to sift through the obviously bad options to find this one, apparently-promising, opportunity.  I didn’t have the patients, money or will to hang around in Xi’an for another shot.  In truth, I just wanted to go home.  A year ago this seemed like one of my last few options, but certain changes in my personal life had happened and my ambitions hadn’t caught up.

Eager to get going, I moved out of my crummy apartment in the Yangjiacun district and into the old city, which is surrounded by four ancient walls.  I took up for two nights in the Han Tang Inn hostel.  I realised upon arriving that I had stayed there before, a few years ago when I last visited China.  It was a perfect haven after the difficult and emotional week I’d had.  I checked into my six bed dorm and marveled at the relative luxury compared to what would have been my home in Yangjiacun.  It felt clean, safe and comfortable.


Han Tang Inn Hostel

Han Tang Inn Hostel


 

I ordered some comforting grub and a cup of tea and mapped out my next day and a half.  It says something about my experience that I’d felt extremely nervous about lugging my baggage out into the street to hail the taxi that would bring me here, and that I was reluctant to go outside.  I wanted to stay where I was protected.  This was a far cry from my attitude in 2012, when I flew out with my then-girlfriend to explore India and Southeast Asia and bounced from plane to taxi to train without batting an eyelid.  That trip was a breeze with barely a worry in the world, and no compunction about hailing a taxi, or trying to buy fruit from people who we couldn’t communicate with except for the odd word and lots of gesticulating.

So that these new anxieties didn’t get the better of me, I forced myself out into the daylight.  The hostel is centrally located so I was right in the middle of the old city.  The area inside of the city walls is barely touched by the area’s notorious smog – most of the traffic and ever-present dusty construction is without – and sunlight shone down as I reacquainted myself with the ancient capital.

It took no time at all for me to remember why I’d chosen Xi’an to be my new home.  The city, like any in China, is horrendously crowded, but provided one isn’t in a hurry there is little to get wound up about.  The crowds stroll along and the traveler strolls with it, up to the lynchpin of the city, the old Bell Tower, and beyond to its partner the Drum Tower, on through the Muslim Quarter to barter for trinkets, out towards the Temple of the City Gods.  I was out until dark and then headed back.  But even the trip out into the clean, well-maintained centre of Shaanxi culture didn’t make me regret my decision to buy that flight home, though it served to balance some of the disappointment of my experiences.


 

The Bell Tower

The Bell Tower


Temple of the City Gods

Temple of the City Gods


 

That night I suffered the bane of the backpacker: sharing a dorm room with a snorer.  And snore he did, that friendly bearded Swede, from 05:00 for over an hour.  I hadn’t been able to get to sleep, but just as I was drifting off I was treated to that pre-dawn sonorous honk.  After a failed attempt to sleep in the common room, I dug deeper into my overdraft for a private room.

Blessed peace!

I took a similar wander the next day (the inner temple was closed the day before).  I met a few interesting locals, watched arguments over a game of Chinese chess, and was asked to have a photo taken with a group of local students.

Soon it was time to head to the airport.  This time the route was via Hong Kong, and I would get a train from London via the Tube rather than fly to Manchester.  It was 30+ hours of sleepless travel, but I was immensely grateful to be back home amongst the loved ones I’d missed so dearly, even after only a week.

Returning so soon is disappointing and embarrassing, but these are short-lived emotions.  The sensation of peace upon finally climbing into bed in the house I grew up in clarified a lot of thoughts and feelings for me.  For now I’m very happy to be home!

— db

 

Dispute

I had to be up at 6:30 for a medical the University wanted me to take for insurance purposes.  After finally getting to sleep at 3:30, I was roused by the numerous and loud alarms I had set for myself to avoid oversleeping again.

The medical was interesting.  I was very anxious that the health centre would turn out to be some dodgy back-alley affair, but thankfully it took place at an international health centre.  The impressive building and wide open interiors were sparkling clean.  It made me jealous on behalf of my shithole apartment.  The usual queueless rabble crowded the front desk and my guide did the appropriate shoving and waving to get me seen to.  I watched the people behind the desk: one man in a lab coat stood up from his computer, opened an official looking locker, and took out an encrusted saucepan to drink from.  Soup, hopefully.

Sleep-deprived and anxious, I was led through a battery of tests.  The first was a dreaded blood sample.  I was horrified to see that I would have to sit on a stool and stick my arm through a window in a pane of glass for the nurse.  I have an embarrassing habit of going grey and falling over when I have blood taken.  I warned my guide, went through the painless sampling, and draped myself over two chairs to wait for the tunnel vision and cold chills to dissipate.  The other tests seemed odd or excessive: an x-ray (alarming), an ultrasound on my stomach (“He should work out more,” the doctor told my guide), blood pressure and some kind of body water/conduction test with electrodes.

By the time I was dropped back off at the University, it was only 09:30.  I was starved and shaky, so resorted to McDonalds again, my oasis of Westerness.  I was still experiencing what I assumed was culture shock.  Nevertheless, I had plenty of time before a meeting with the Assistant Director of Studies at 17:00, so I went home for a nap.

Unfortunately the meeting was not a success.  I had already discovered that the school was not part of the University, but a private school renting office space.  I’d already had clues that they wanted me to teach IT as well as English, which wasn’t what I was there fore.  Before the meeting I was taken to a room to sign the contracts.  It seems typical that the employment contracts school are required to send to the government are different to the contracts that the employer-employee have.  “Which one is legally binding?” I asked. “They both are,” was the spurious reply.

The government’s version of the contract omitted a schedule of amendments, which included all my negotiated changes as well as my salary.  The government caps the limit of a foreign teacher’s salary, presumably to keep China self reliant – at half my agreed wage.  It’s to my benefit, but the dishonesty was off-putting.  Apparently I was also to be put on a three month probation at a reduced wage.  Payday is the 10th of each month. “So on 10th of December, I’ll be paid for six weeks?” I asked. “No, just four,” was the reply.  So was I to work for free?  The questions was to go to the accountant, and meanwhile I was to sign…

The meeting took things a step further.  It transpired that now I was to be hired as an IT teacher, not to teach English.  The responsibility was pawned off on me by my predecessor, who hadn’t wanted it either.  I had also been promised that I would teach adults, but all the students I’d seen so far were undergraduates.

I asked the ADOS to reconsider the changes to the agreement.  She would take it to the Director, but any compromise seemed unlikely.

I had gotten in touch with another teacher who had worked with the school.  He had nothing but nightmares to report: refusal of personal leave, lengthy enforced overtime, sly games with his housing agreement, being screamed at by the Chinese staff.

I’d done plenty of research about the pitfalls of accepting teaching jobs in China, and had rejected a dozen offers before settling for what I thought had been a trustworthy company, a University school.  Now, I’d learned that I’d been lied to about the nature of the school, its students, the job and the salary.

These practical things are easy to describe.  Harder to expound upon are the nebulous emotions and thoughts that fueled my decision to walk away from the job.  I’d felt ill at ease – at best – since I arrived.

Two fortuitous things happened that same day.  The first was that my lost luggage had been found, abandoned at Heathrow by Virgin Atlantic.  It was battered and there were some damaged contents, but nothing serious.  I tipped the delivery guy generously for reuniting me with 80% of my worldly possessions.  The second thing was that I’d been given my passport back by the school.

I booked a night at a hostel in Xi’an’s tourist-friendly old town, then started looking for flights home.

—db

Arrival

[Continued from previous post…]

The fun didn’t end there.  That was your basic, everyday long-distance-travel hell.

I met my guide in Xi’an and we took a taxi to the apartment.  Bleary eyed, I followed her across the road, around the corner, up to the building.  In China and Hong Kong, apartment buildings are called ‘mansions’.  The mansion looked okay from outside, even though we’d passed through what looked like a red light district (most Chinese cities look like red light districts at night – because of all the red lights, natch).  So far this part of the city, which I’d been warned was a little shady, seemed quite hostile.  I put it down to the lack of sleep and onset of culture shock.  The apartment building lobby echoed with coughing and footsteps on the hard floors.  We waited for lift from the centre of a crowd of other tenants who were decidedly scruffy looking.  What kind of a den was I walking into?  I was reminded of Chungking Mansion, the notorious Kowloon “melting pot” which has been compared to the smugglers’ cantina in Star Wars…


 

hem-dazon-at-mos-eisley-cantina


On the 24th floor was my apartment.  The door failed to open on the first few tries, but admitted us begrudgingly.  Spacious but spartan, the one-room place did not fill me with a warm homely feeling.  There was a metal rack against one wall, supposedly for hanging clothes but would have been better placed in a warehouse.  A bed with a broken headboard jutted out from the cold tiled walls.  Plastic lawn furniture comprised my dining area, with a small gas stove and fridge filling one corner opposite a top-loading washing machine.  A filthy wetroom toilet with a shower head gave out a pungent aroma that presumably originated in the waste pipes of the 100 other apartments in the building, or else the sewer itself.

To many people in China this might be a half-decent place to live.  To my pampered Western eye it looked like a bed in the middle of a kitchen.  It had a drain in the middle of the floor, just in case I wanted to commit a bloody murder or slaughter a pig.  There was a distressing amount of anti-rodent and -bug artillery around the place, kindly abandoned by the previous teacher.

The previous teacher.  I still haven’t gotten his full story.  He exists as a legend spoken of only in whispers.  Some say he was Russian.  Some say he took a Chinese wife.  Papers found in a plastic wallet on the metal racking suggested he was an artist and perhaps a student of biology.  He worked at the university for three years.  He worked at the university for three months.  He retired because he wanted to start a family.  He was fired because he was emotionally unstable and immune to reason.  The truth eludes me still.  If he is still alive, I wish him well.

I had little time to admire the place that would be my home for the next year.  The bed had no bedding, and so my guide offered to take me to the supermarket to pick up sheets and supplies.

We ventured out into the manic night-scene of the street.  Side-stepped traffic and smokey roadside vendors.  Crossed the road when a green light appeared, but dodged speeding cars and scooters that ignored the signals. “I don’t get how the crossings work,” my guide admitted.  It’s because people cross even if the light isn’t green; it’s because traffic mows through pedestrians even if the light is red.

We caught a bus.  The buses are crowded and have two doors.  Get on by the driver, get off further down via the second door.  Don’t expect passengers to make way for you as you try to get to that exit.  Just shove, there’s no other way.  The crazy people won’t mind.

The supermarket was in the basement of a shopping centre.  Likewise hectic.  My guide asked where she could find bedding; a kettle; bottled water.  The shopping assistants were appalled that she should ask questions.  They wished not to be disturbed.  All the duvets were in different styles.  Each style came in one colour only.  One may have the style one prefers, or else the colour one prefers.  I picked a duvet of adequate thickness (incidentally, pink).  I found sheets and covers, and a pillow, and the other stuff.  This came to RMB 400, about £40.  We paid, carried everything by hand because bags are not provided.

Back on the bus.  I sweated inside my coat.  The water bottles were slipping from under my arm.  The duvet, in a box with a wire handle, was weighing down and the handle cut into my fingers.  My guide shoved to the exit door.  I stood where I was.  Every jolt of the bus made me half-fall.  I dropped the bottles, picked them up.  I had to relinquish my hold on the duvet box for a minute.  I must have looked like a humour, hairy, toppling clown.  I gathered everything as we approached my apartment.  I had a giant box and other things and people would not move.  I lifted them above my head and shoved.  My guide alighted; the doors closed in front of me.  My guide shrieked to the driver.  Eventually the doors opened.

I got back to the apartment.  We ran over basics, like paying for utilities (there is a small office in the lobby downstairs).  Then she leaves, saying she will see me at 1pm tomorrow to show me the university.  I am relieved to be alone.  It’s 9pm and I haven’t slept for about 30 hours.

My new duvet covers are not a set.  They are a single sheet.  I put it on the bed.  The pillow and duvet go uncovered for the night.  I have a quick shower in the disgusting wetroom.  I send a few quick messages to loved ones and then try to sleep.

Sleep does not come for four hours.

I wake up to banging.  Someone is banging on my door.  I check my phone – 13:20.  I set three consecutive alarms and slept through them all.  My guide is at the door, I apologise, she leaves as I quickly shower and dress.  There is a meeting at 2pm with the assistant director.  We catch the bus again.  Things are a little easier in the daylight, after twelve hours of sleep.  But the university campus is shabby, run into the ground.  Most of the buildings seem empty and decrepit.  My guide points to a clock tower. ‘Look, London!  Not really…’

No, not really.

Is this really a university?  The 13th rated university in all of China?  Where are all the people?

We pass a few studenty-looking types.  It’s several street-lengths to the building where I will teach.  I’ve passed onto the AD, who smiles warmly and takes me somewhere else.  The sports field.  This is a sports meeting.  What have I got to do with sports?  I’m an English teacher.

No-one is there.  The AD is perplexed.  She goes to find someone and returns five minutes later with 20 kids and some local teachers.  The other foreign teacher is not here, though he should be.  I’m introduced to the students, who jokingly present me with a shuttlecock as a gift.  I crack my first smile since arriving, but it’s short-lived.  The AD take some photos of the students and I.  I wonder if they’re going to be used as promotional material – Look, we have a white face!  Aren’t we prestigious?  I’m told it happens a lot.  One teacher asks, in broken English, whether I’m the new computer teacher?  My guide shushes him quiet.

They let me go home to sleep.  I go back to the supermarket to get some supplies.  There is a McDonalds here, which I take refuge in.  Lovely, lovely familiarity.  I haven’t stopped sweating, either because of the humidity or a stress response.  Eventually, with enough iced Coke, I cool.  I go to the bathroom.  The cubicle seems locked, but the lock is green.  Maybe it’s stuck?  I push, breaking the lock, revealing a man squatting over the hole smoking a sneaky cigarette.  He slams the door shut, I apologise, there is a tirade in Mandarin or Shaanxi dialect.  I go to pee at home.

I know that I have to be up at 6:30am to go for a medical that the university has arranged, a necessity for my medical insurance.  I put my head down at 8pm, but again sleep does not come.  A lot of things don’t add up.  The state of the university.  My brief, truncated conversation with the local teacher.  The apartment and living area are problems, but maybe fixable problems.  I’m getting paid enough, maybe I can afford to rent somewhere and still make a living?  Maybe the university will pay up for a living allowance instead of providing the abattoir apartment?

I decide that I’ll spend a few nights at a hostel for some comfort and company, and wait for my meeting tomorrow with the AD to talk about exactly what they want from me.  If things don’t work out, I can always consider staying long enough to recoup my financial losses and then leave.  Six weeks, maybe ten.  Thinking of the situation as temporary, I realise a lot of things and feel much better.

Sleep does not come until 3:30pm.

[To be continued…]

—db

Journey

It took me a few days to get a stable internet connection and access my illegal blog site, now that I’m here in China.  Behind the Great Firewall is a different world.  I’ve spoken to a few locals about what they think of the censorship, and answers are evasive.  People here don’t seem to mind it much, apparently under the impression that things are being kept from them for a good reason.

Well, they couldn’t keep me out!  Take that, Asia.  After waiting so long for my contract and visa to come through, I could finally set off for my new life in China.

It would be a long journey – over 24 hours – and was beset by problems from the beginning.  The train ride to Manchester Airport was cut short due to some problem down the line, so I was forced to disembark at Piccadilly.  An uninformative and unhelpful person at the Information Helpdesk couldn’t be sure another train would accept my ticket.  I decided to risk it anyway and made it to the Airport, delayed.  There were the usual long queues at Manchester, and off I flew to Heathrow, where – unbeknownst to me at that time – my check-in baggage was quietly and mischievously slipping into a black hole.

I don’t know what cosmic, transformative adventures were had by that slightly overweight maroon suitcase.  All I know is that it tumbled through dark dimensions untold, and was clawed at by space-goblins before re-emerging into our plane of existence somewhere in the vicinity of Beijing three days later.

The suitcase doesn’t talk about the experience, and I don’t ask.

I met a peculiar man dressed a little like a classic Dr Who who was off to Shanghai to judge a bonsai tree contest.  He was apparently well regarded for his knowledge of stunted trees.  Despite this he proved a little too clingy and wanted the ticket lady to seat us together, so I ditched him on the pretense of taking a pee-pee.  He might have pruned me in my sleep.

As it happened, the 10 hour flight from Heathrow to Beijing was probably the best time I’ve had this last week.  I was placed next to a thoroughly pleasant gentleman from Japan named Ishiro, who was a stage actor and director donchuknow, and we chatted about our home countries and theatre and anime for a while until he got to sleep and I didn’t.  It wasn’t even spoiled by the in-flight film, which was Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence” and should be avoided if at all possible.  Just … awful.  I can’t even.  Don’t watch it.  I watched it twice and it actually got worse.

Then the adventure really started.  I landed in Beijing and wandered about for a bit, wired from total lack of sleep.  A lady insisted that I didn’t need to collect my baggage and that it would be transferred to the domestic connection to Xi’an, even though another person at Heathrow told me that I would have to.

When I discovered three hours later that my luggage had been lost, I blamed that young lady for its disappearance.  This was wrong of me.  The black hole had opened up in London, not Beijing, and although neither Young Lady or I knew it at that point, the fate of the suitcase had already been decided by the fickle gods of international travel. If I ever see Saint Christopher here in China I will sock him in the jaw.

[To be continued…]

—db

Soon to fly

It’s been a long few months of training and preparing, but things are finally ready for my journey to China.

Whilst I was on the CELTA training course I was put in touch with a University in Xian who was looking for a teacher.  After long talks, giving a demo class via Skype, and contract negotiations, I was offered a great-sounding job with them to start November 1st.

There are some horror stories out there about TEFL teaching in Southeast Asia, especially China, as unsavory types catch on to the idea that “rich” foreigners (many irresponsible uni-dropouts and hapless travel bums included) can be duped into taking poorly paid jobs in terrible conditions with only a few well-worded lies.  Thankfully after being very careful, exceedingly dubious and with a bit of experience in that corner of the world, I landed a well-paid job with a reputable language school.

It’s taken a while to organise my work visa, as these require official documents inviting me to China that are approved by the Chinese government.  The papers came via international mail early this week, and I was able to apply for my visa at the consulate in Manchester.


China Town, Manchester

China Town, Manchester


It was great to visit Manchester again.  I was there in 2011 for Chinese New Year and had a great time wandering around China Town and enjoying the festivities.  Walking through China Town this time, I reminisced and wondered what the year ahead will be like.

Although it’s been a busy, anxious week – hoping the visa gets approved, catching up with as many people as possible, and packing my few surviving possessions – I’m trying to look ahead positively.  I set off on a 24-hour journey this Monday, flying via London and Beijing, and arrive in Xi’an on Tuesday with just a few days to settle in before I start work the following week.

Thanks to all my loved ones for their kindness and support!

—db