Honesty & Cobblers


Me:” What do you think of my new hat?”

Co-teach: “I think it is quite like pervert.”


I like honesty. There’s an old cliche about policies, and about where honesty ranks in terms of them. One of the many films I watched on DVD over mid-autumn festival was the engaging sci-fi epic Interstellar. One of the characters in that movie is a NASA robot who’s ‘honesty’ setting is at 90% because brutal honesty is not often what humans want to hear, especially on a mission in uncharted deep space. “Honesty,” said John Lennon,* “won’t get you a lot of friends, but it will get you the right ones.”

Like all the English teachers at my company, I work with a Chinese co-teacher. Her name, for the sake of anonymity, is Co-teach. Earlier this evening, I met Co-teach at Xiabu Xiabu for a hot pot. She speaks almost fluent English which, for someone who’s never been outside of China, is quite an impressive achievement. Instead of studying the language, she pretty much taught herself English by watching and re-watching Sherlock and Once Upon a Time. This is also quite impressive, because most native English speakers who watch that sort of stuff over and over again only learn how to significantly lower their social skills.

She also ‘gets’ English jokes (which, according to my cursory and superficial research,** is a sure sign that you understand a language very well). An example being: –

Me: So the interviewer asks, “what do you consider to be your biggest weakness?” The applicant says, “honesty.” So the interviewer replies “I don’t consider honesty a weakness.” And the applicant says “I don’t give a fuck what you think!”

Co-teach: Haha. She didn’t get the job!

Me: Exactly!***

Like most Chinese people I’ve met (and the human  character Anne Hathaway in Interstellar), Co-teach’s honesty setting is way above 90…

My uncle once told me that the first thing you notice about a person is their shoes. According to Co-teach, this is an old Chinese saying. It’s not something I’d given much thought to because, call me old fashioned or cynical or whatever, but the first thing I usually notice about someone is me minding my own fucking business.

Nevertheless, I learned about this saying during a weird conversation that Co-teach and I had at Xiabu Xiabu. I didn’t, unfortunately, record the conversation so what follows is a Crimewatch-style reconstruction. I have removed some of my more colorful responses (the blue ones) which are marked by an unambiguous “…”

Co-teach: May I give you some advice?
Me: Sure.
Co-teach: You should wash your shoes.
Me: Wash my -?
Co-teach: Shoes.
Me: Why the … should I do that?
Co-teach: Because they are dirty.
Me: They’re dirty because I live in Beijing. They’re white. White shoes in Beijing will always get dirty. It’s very dusty here!

(I initially thought that was the end of the conversation, but as well as Chinese honesty, Co-teach also has a more British streak of stubbornness.)

Co-teach: I wash my shoes.
Me (pointing at her Nikes): You washed these?
Co-teach (nodding): And brushed them.
Me: You washed and brushed your shoes?
Co-teach: Yes.
Me: … me, I barely have time to shower in the mornings! Have there been complaints?
Co-teach: About what?
Me: My shoes. Have parents said “this teachers shoes are too dirty!”
Co-teach (Pause): Noooo.
Me: You just hesitated. You had to think about that!
Co-teach: There have been no complaints.
Me: Has anyone refused to sign as a student, after one of my demo classes, because they thought my shoes were too dirty?
Co-Teach: No.
Me: Then I’m pretty sure my … shoes are fine.
Co-teach (diplomatically): You could wash them at work?
Me: I’m not gonna wash my … shoes at work.
Co-Teach: There is a brush. At work. There is a brush.
Me: I’m not gonna brush my … shoes at work either!

(We lapsed into silence, and Co-teach regretted bringing it up.)

Co-teach: I should not have said this. About your shoes. I knew you would be angry.
Me: I’m not angry, Co-teach, I’m just not going to wash my … shoes.
Co-teach: You are angry,
Me: I’m not … angry, Co-teach!
Co-teach: You swear when you are angry.
Me: I swear all the … time! I’m … happy, you’ve given me something to blog about!

(Co-teach then launched into a children’s song that goes ‘Brush, Brush, Brush my Teeth’, but she wittily replaced the lyric ‘brush’ with the lyric ‘wash’ and the lyric ‘teeth’ with a lyric that I’m sure you can figure out for yourself.

(I had an idea. Then, Instead of dropping the subject, I mentioned my idea to Co-teach.)

Co-Teach: What idea?
Me: If you feel so passionate about the shoes, then I can give them to you and you can wash them. You did a good job washing your shoes. They look very clean.
Co-Teach: I cannot do this.
Me: Why not?
Co-Teach: Because [her housemate] will see me and she will ask “why are you washing Ben’s shoes?”
Me: Okay, you’ve got me there.

(After dinner, having avoided the thorny subject any more, we said our goodbyes.)

Co-Teacher: I will see you at work tomorrow.
Me: Yeah, I’ll be the poor … at the sink who’s turned up half an hour earlier to wash his … shoes.


*(And I honestly know I’m at the risk of belabouring the point here)

**(I read it in a book once and have yet to summon the enthusiasm to fact-check it)

***(Another example being: – when the punchline is delivered on a Chinese joke, I usually just chuckle politely or say ‘oh yeah?” My honesty setting is just above 90%)

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